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U.S. News
'We all cried together ... It made us better people'

A day to remember

Thursday, September 12, 2002

By Steve Levin and Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

STONYCREEK, Pa. -- Brought together in a grassy field by circumstances far beyond their control, the families of the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 met yesterday with President and Mrs. Bush at the same spot where their spouses, parents, sons and daughters died one year before.

United Airlines flight attendants and pilots comfort each other before the start of a memorial service yesterday in Shanksville for those killed on United Flight 93 a year ago. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

On that day, the Boeing 757 gouged a 50-foot-deep wound in a reclaimed strip mine near Shanksville, Somerset County. Yesterday, the physical scar was hidden by fill dirt and waist-high grass, which waved in the blustery wind.

For many of the families, the 82-minute visit from the president and first lady helped mend some of the emotional wounds wrought by the unimaginable crash on Sept. 11, 2001, that killed 40 people on a day when thousands more also died in New York City and Washington, D.C.

"It was real important to see President Bush," said Lowell Dahl, 55, of Austin, Texas, whose baby brother, Jason, was captain of Flight 93. "I was impressed by his caring and his concern, the way he shook your hand and looked you straight in the eye."

About 215 of the immediate family members of Flight 93 sat in three rows of folding chairs; each family was allowed up to six people for the meeting with the president. Behind the rows were bales of hay, and the remaining 320 or so family members and friends watched the proceedings from there.

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Dressed in a dark blue suit, as was his wife, the president stood ramrod straight while United States Air Force buglers played "Taps" and an Army major brought in a wreath of red and white carnations topped with a red, white and blue ribbon.

Following two prayers, including one by the Rev. Paul Britton, whose sister, Marion, died on Flight 93, the Armed Forces Chorus sang "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Most family members sang along.

Then, starting at opposite ends of the rows of chairs, the Bushes, joined by National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer, spoke quietly with each of the 36 family groups, signing autographs, posing for photographs, accepting mementos and, at times, families said, appearing near tears.

Members from four families -- those of Thomas E. Burnett, Jr., Todd Beamer, Christian Adams and Kristin Gould White -- did not attend.

The president kissed and hugged Karen Bingham, whose stepson, Mark, was a passenger.

"He said, 'I can't begin to understand your pain,' " said her husband, Jerry. "I know there was a tear in his eye and Laura Bush had lots of tears in her eyes. We all cried together. It made us better people."

Carol Heiderich, one of Jason Dahl's sisters, said the president looked at the photo button she wore of her brother and said, "Oh, he was a pretty handsome guy, wasn't he?"

She presented the president with a small ribbon from the students of Capt. Jason M. Dahl Elementary School in San Jose, Calif. It's the recently renamed school that all five Dahl siblings attended as children. She had attached a pair of flight wings to the ribbon, the same kind that flight attendants often hand out to children.

"He didn't really look at it when she handed it to him," said Joan Raymundo, of San Jose, another Dahl sibling. "He looked at it when he walked away and then he asked questions about it to the next family he spoke to."

That family group included Sandy Dahl, the captain's widow.

For Gordon Felt, whose older brother, Edward, had placed a frantic 78-second call to Westmoreland County 911 minutes before Flight 93 crashed, meeting the president sent a strong message.

"He took an unbelievable amount of time to meet with the families," said Felt, 38, of Remsen, N.Y. "The message was, while we lost our loved ones, the American spirit is as strong as it was, if not stronger."

About 3 p.m., after the Bushes had met with all the families and the military chorus finished "Amazing Grace," the presidential entourage filed out. The families stood and applauded.

Hours later, Lowell Dahl still wanted to talk about the president's impact.

"He really expressed his concern and his thankfulness for how the events [surrounding Flight 93] turned out," Dahl said, referring to reports that the terrorists planned to crash the plane into the White House or U.S. Capitol building.

"He indicated in no uncertain terms that he considered all 40 people to be heroes."

Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919. Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.

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