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First lady meets Flight 93 families at Somerset site

Tuesday, September 18, 2001

By James O'Toole, Michael A. Fuoco and Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

STONYCREEK, Pa. -- They walked first past state troopers standing at attention. Farther down the hill, which was dotted by yellow and red flags that mark possible evidence or remains among the debris, recovery workers dressed in identical white biohazard suits lined up at attention, their labors halted.

State troopers salute the buses carrying relatives of victims to the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 near Shanksville yesterday. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

As they walked toward a 70-foot-long wall formed by rows of stepped hay bales, the 300 relatives and friends of the 44 victims of United Airlines Flight 93 were handed white and red roses, and flat Styrofoam angels made by members of a nearby church congregation. Written on one side was, "Someone prayed for you today." On the other was the date now inscribed in the mind of the world, "09/11/01."

Before leaving the scene, they left behind flowers and mementos -- one handwritten remembrance telling an adult brother, "You are my hero," another addressed to "the best of friends, sister and soulmate."

A short time later, the mourners joined first lady Laura Bush and Gov. Tom Ridge at a memorial service, held under a 100-foot-long white tent on a golf course fairway at Indian Lake Resort -- out of sight of the recovery operations, but with hills surrounding the crash site serving as a backdrop.

"We cannot ease the pain, but this country stands by you," Bush told an audience that remained largely composed. "We will always remember what happened that day and to whom it happened."

Some family members left the service with small vials of earth taken from the crash site; all left with sympathy and encouragement.

Counselors who accompanied mourners to the crash site described the range of reactions as what one might see at any wake. Many cried. Others leaned on one another and exchanged hugs. Some displayed little outward evidence of their emotion, gazing with apparent serenity on the scarred field.

"They never communicated any sense of bitterness," Ridge said after the service, a nondenominational affair at which both he and Bush spoke. "They were grateful for the words and the actions of those who seek to comfort them."

But Laura Bush said she also was struck by the fact that none of the surviving relatives and friends made any suggestion that military revenge would be balm for their emotional wounds.

"No one said that," she told reporters. "Each of these family members ... is grateful to all Americans for standing with them in their time of grief."

That unity has become a standard in rural Stonycreek and the nearby slow-paced communities in these mountains -- lauding the passengers and crew as heroes who fought to wrest the Boeing 757 from hijackers, forcing it down into a reclaimed strip mine.

With that, they likely avoided calamities that followed the three other jetliners hijacked last Tuesday morning, Bush and others have said. As a handwritten note on a makeshift shrine in nearby Shanksville says, "Thank you for saving other lives with your lives."

Relatives of the victims, who have been staying at Seven Springs Mountain Resort 24 miles away, were bused to the crash site yesterday to view the hillside and woods that contain the unrecognizable remains of the jet and its passengers and crew.

Some of the victims' relatives and friends, riding in a stretch limousine and two small buses, began arriving at the crash site shortly before noon, rolling past a line of state troopers standing at attention and saluting amid the dust that flew in the wake of the small, sad caravan.

They were the vanguard for approximately 200 more family members who arrived at the site in six large buses at about 1:15 p.m.

Before leaving the crash site for the memorial service, the mourners left behind a collection of mementos, from stuffed animals to family snapshots, tucked amid flowers under an 18-foot flagpole, its stars and stripes, which once flew over the Capitol, now at half-staff. There was a collection of family photos of a flight attendant, a snapshot of a man with a child on his shoulders and a picture of a 50-ish woman hugging a toddler.

Laura Bush listens as Gov. Tom Ridge speaks to reporters after the memorial service for victims of Flight 93. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

From the family of New Jerseyian Todd Beamer, 32 -- whose final moments were transmitted over a cellular phone, exhorting fellow passengers, "Let's roll!" as they prepared to do battle with the hijackers -- there was a container of M&Ms, a cap bearing the emblem of his beloved Chicago Bulls, a pen from the company he worked for and a snapshot of his father, on a beach with his young sons.

Guarding the mourners' privacy, police kept all but essential personnel away from the scene. Later, clergy and mental health counselors who were on hand to comfort the mourners recalled vignettes of anguish, comfort and affection.

Last night, one family member, Gordon Felt, whose brother Edward, 41, died in the crash, told reporters at Seven Springs the country's leaders should be clear-minded and not guided by emotion in planning a response to the attacks.

"One of the most powerful themes brought home by the memorial service was the theme of love," Felt said at a news conference. "While I think there needs to be a response, we need to temper it with the fact we are the leader of the world and need to react responsibly.

"The revenge factor clouds judgment. This is a decision that needs to be made with clarity. ... I'm sure there will be a proper, measured response from our government and I'm sure it will be the right one."

Edward Felt, of Matawan, N.J., was a computer engineer for BEA Systems. He was traveling to San Francisco on business. He had lived in Matawan for 20 years and was married and the father of two children.

The site where his brother died is "tragic," Gordon Felt said, but less so than the other crash sites because "it didn't affect other people."

In fact, he said he believes everyone on the plane was a hero for overpowering the hijackers to save others.

"I consider it hallowed ground," Felt said of the crash site. "When you think of it, it was our first victory against the terrorist threat."

The Aftermath:

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FBI debunks ugly rumor at UPMC McKeesport about Middle Eastern doctors said to have celebrated attacks

A calendar of related events

Flight rules may disrupt organ transplants

How to Help

Sports rivals come together Murphy greets N.Y.-bound aid convoy from Cleveland

Among the victims: Banker, lawyer, Navy commander


In addition to Bush and Ridge, several clergy members spoke at the memorial service, including the Rev. Joseph McCaffrey, an FBI chaplain, who repeated Winston Churchill's simple, direct advice to a group of students, "Never give up; never give up; never give up."

"That's what we're doing in this country," said Salvation Army Maj. Ed Pritchard, who walked to the memorial site with the families. "We'll never give up."

The formal service lasted about 20 minutes. Afterward, the mourners lingered to comfort one another or be with their own thoughts.

"The families cling to one another; they are their own support group," said Lisa Taylor of Allentown, who is coordinating the team of counselors provided by the American Red Cross.

As the mourners headed back to the buses, they turned toward a shed displaying the national flags of the victims' homelands -- the United States, Germany, New Zealand and Japan.

The sight of the Japanese flag seemed to elicit a new wave of emotion from a female relative of a Japanese victim. She returned to the wall of bales and picked up the victim's photo, sobbing and calling his name, again and again.

"That's the scene that will stick with me," said Salvation Army Maj. Richard Zander. "It was very powerful; it was very sad."

Gordon Felt said everything the victims' families saw yesterday -- makeshift memorials, banners, flags, flowers, state troopers saluting, the work of volunteers, letters, tears -- had helped sustain them.

Asked if the visit provided him, his mother and another brother with closure, Felt said, "It's a start. I don't know what will bring total closure. It was probably the first of many visits needed to bring closure."

The emotion did not leave with the mourners. Five hours after the last of them departed, Red Cross worker Dawna Bates of Latrobe walked up to the memorial, tears spilling from her cheeks, a two-foot-high wooden angel as the tribute she would leave.

"I made it for them," she explained softly.

After viewing the field where their loved ones met their deaths on the Tuesday that shook the nation, the family members went on to the memorial service and, later, a meal at Seven Springs.

As the six buses left the crash site, one passenger solemnly waved to bystanders. Another held up two fingers in a V-for-victory sign.

They were buoyed by the portrayal of Flight 93's passengers as heroes, counselors say.

"I think that's very comforting," Taylor said. "And perhaps, if you can make any sense of a tragedy, you can take comfort ... that they brought down the plane where they did."

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