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Prayers memorialize Flight 93 victims

Saturday, September 15, 2001

By James O'Toole and Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

STONYCREEK, Pa. -- Speaking a few hundred yards from the wreckage of United Flight 93, Pennsylvania's senators said they believe the U.S. Capitol is still standing and they are still alive because of a heroic struggle by some of the plane's doomed passengers.

Family members of passengers who died aboard Flight 93 comfort each other during a candlelight prayer and memorial service last night at the Somerset County Courthouse. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

In memory of those passengers, U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum brought to the crash site yesterday a U.S. flag that had flown over the Capitol.

Although the flag was not immediately hoisted, it is expected to be flown over the hilltop here where about 200 federal and state investigators continue to search for and recover human remains and wreckage from the downed Boeing 757.

"We owe a special moment of prayer and thanksgiving, for what went on --what we believe went on -- on this plane," Santorum said as he presented the flag to FBI Special Agent Jack Shea, who heads the bureau's Pittsburgh office.

"I and many of my colleagues believe that one of these four planes was headed either for the United States Capitol or the White House, and that, potentially, this plane was targeted at a building that many of us would have been in had it proceeded on its course."

Specter said he and other senators had discussed recommending the nation's highest civilian honor for the people who are believed to have battled in the skies over Pennsylvania to avert an even more terrible tragedy Tuesday morning.

"Right now we are looking into the Freedom Medal for those people who were on board the plane who may have saved the Capitol and the U.S. senators and House members, including the two sitting here," Specter said.

"We have seen the reports of people who were on the plane and talked through their cell phones -- Jeremy Glick and Thomas Burnett and Mark Bingham," Specter added. "And Jeremy Glick was reported to have told his wife that he was going to take action -- a strong guy, a tough guy -- and all the indicators are that they rushed the pilot and they brought the plane down. Those are the indicators. When we find the [voice] recorder from the flight deck, we will know more."

The Boeing 757's flight data recorder was discovered Thursday afternoon buried in the impact crater. It was shipped to Washington to be analyzed by the National Transportation Safety Board.

On Thursday, the Pennsylvania senators joined other congressional leaders in a meeting with President Bush.

"He is fighting mad," Specter reported.

"It was a remarkable experience for me," Santorum said. "I almost felt like the president was growing in stature as I sat at that meeting. It was just incredible, to see him in a way that, frankly, I had not seen him before. He is absolutely committed and dedicated ... to defending this country against terrorists, to defending the American people."

Santorum said he was heartened not just by Bush's presentation, but by the uniform, bipartisan support the president drew from the lawmakers.

As the senators spoke, recovery teams were laboring over the hill behind them, seeking further evidence, particularly the voice recorder that Specter had mentioned. Specter and Santorum said that they had no firm evidence that the Capitol was the target of Flight 93's hijackers but said that the circumstances surrounding this crash and other events of Tuesday pointed to that conclusion.

Sen. Rick Santorum, left, and Sen. Arlen Specter listen to a prayer by Rabbi Ronald C. Bluming near the site of the crash of Flight 93 in Somerset County. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

"What makes us think the Capitol was the target is that I can't think of a greater beacon of freedom to the world than the United States Capitol, and we're talking about people here who hate freedom," Santorum said.

"It would be unlikely," Specter added, "[for the plane] to go to Camp David, where nobody was. And you had the earlier plane [that went on to strike the Pentagon] heading in the direction of the White House, and the Capitol, the main symbol of America in the world."

The two senators spoke with reporters just after participating in a prayer service at the site, where a rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Baptist minister joined in an informal memorial service.

A somber Specter looked straight ahead throughout the remarks. Santorum, with bowed head and closed eyes, occasionally nodded in affirmation as the clergymen cited Scripture and asserted that God will provide strength and comfort to the shocked, grieving American people and their leaders.

"Let me say to the world: Terrorism will never defeat the American spirit. These terrorists want to bend Americans to their knees, but all they've done is awaken the sleeping giant," said the Rev. Russ Kessler, pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Somerset and a former Marine.

"God is going to use this tragedy in a very unique and special way to revive America."

As he's done countless times on previous occasions, Rabbi Ronald C. Bluming of Beth Sholom Congregation in Johnstown, Cambria County, intoned the Hebrew words of the kaddish -- the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead -- and a prayer for compassion. But Bluming said he was moved to tears before he completed those solemn cadences yesterday.

"You cannot grasp the impact of terrorism, the wide-ranging effect on so many," he said. "Israel has been dealing with this for years, but we've been shielded. But no more. We have all been changed forever."

Salvation Army Capt. Dan English of Greensburg also prayed for Flight 93's hijackers, beseeching God to ensure that the terrorists are held accountable for their crimes and that they repent and seek forgiveness.

The senators and the clergymen spoke at an impromptu memorial to the crash victims that volunteers have created at the base of the hill below the crash site. There, a pair of flagpoles bearing U.S. and state flags flank a rustic wooden cross erected Thursday night.

Yesterday, other volunteers added pots of golden mums, wreaths, a burning torch and a sign festooned with red, white and blue bows and the words, "Our prayers are with you."

Sisters Roberta Sawyer, 34, and Suzanne Lowry, 28, of Tomball, Texas, wept quietly and prayed together there after placing two bouquets of pink and yellow daisies and a handwritten letter at its base.

The sisters, whose parents, Ann and Robert Schmucker, live in nearby Davidsville, said they had been visiting other relatives in Buffalo, N.Y., and had been scheduled to fly back to Texas Tuesday night.

After hearing of the crash of Flight 93, they rented a car instead and drove south to make sure their parents were safe.

In the letter they left at the memorial, Sawyer, Lowry and other members of their family expressed gratitude to the passengers on the plane who, with "selfless acts of bravery," apparently prevented the hijackers from crashing into a populated town or a treasured national symbol.

Sawyer's daughter, Shelly, 2 1/2, finished the letter by adding a red-crayon heart.

"The first thing I thought of when I heard that the plane went down was that [the hijackers] didn't mean for it to happen here, but people on that plane were heroes and did what they could to prevent more deaths," Sawyer said. "I have the utmost respect for what they did, and we wanted to do something to show what's in our hearts."

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