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U.S. News
Ceremony lauds spirit of Flight 93 passengers

Thursday, September 12, 2002

By Tom Gibb and James O'Toole, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

STONYCREEK, Pa. -- Mark Bingham was a rabid rugby player, 6 feet 5 inches of gung-ho, a man with so much moxie that he once wrested a gun from a would-be mugger; such chutzpah that, as a University of California-Berkeley fan, he once tackled the Stanford University mascot.

That's how he lived his 31 years, five friends agreed yesterday. And it probably was true to the end, they said, an end that came a year ago yesterday when crew members and passengers aboard United Flight 93 formed a desperate alliance trying to recapture the airliner from hijackers.

"My vision is of him hollering, racing up the aisle and putting the fear of whatever in the hijackers," Michael Petrovich, a friend from New York City, said as he stood in the front ranks of the crowd who joined in remembering the lives of Bingham and 39 others who died in a Somerset County field a year ago.

That spirit of defiance -- as well as the solace tiny Shanksville extended to the grieving families of Flight 93 victims -- was celebrated yesterday during an hour-long memorial service under gray clouds propelled by a chilling wind, a quarter-mile from where the Boeing 757 fell a year ago at 10:06 a.m.

Some of the more than 3,000 people who joined 535 relatives of the crash victims and other invited guests watched mostly in silence. A few toted flags. Many wore red, white and blue. And Bingham's circle -- from roommate Amanda Mark to Matt Hall, who drove Bingham to the airport the day of the crash -- shivered in the wind, hugged and cried.

The crowd listened to the words of two relatives of Flight 93 victims.

"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that what does not destroy us will make us stronger," Sandy Dahl, wife of pilot Jason Dahl, said during the service. "We can depart with the gift of hope, hope for our children, hope for our future, and hope for our everlasting freedom; hope that carries us through until tomorrow when the clouds will part, and the sun will shine on our lives again."

Eleven-year-old Murial Borza, half-sister of 20-year-old collegian Deora Bodley, asked for "a minute of peace" when the world would do something good "even if it's a hug, kiss, smile or a wave, a prayer or just a silent thought of those they love."

Former Gov. Tom Ridge, the nation's homeland security director, noted that this rural community's attention to the victims' families did not begin with yesterday's formal service.

"Today, we also honor and thank a community," Ridge said. "The people of Shanksville embraced the families of Flight 93 as their own ... As the sister of one of the passengers said, 'This sleepy little town just puts its arms around you and embraces you.' "

With that, scores of the victims' families stood and turned away from the stage, applauding as they faced the surrounding mourners. After a moment, the crowd erupted in an answering ovation.

Burnishing the legend of the victims' heroic end, Ridge said, "The passengers and crew did whatever they humanly could -- rush the cockpit, boil water, phone the authorities on the ground ...There were no survivors in this field on Sept. 11, but I have no doubt that thousands of Americans survived that crash. And all Americans are grateful."

Given speculation that Flight 93 hijackers planned to crash the airliner into either the White House or the U.S. Capitol, more than 100 White House staffers boarded buses at 3 a.m. to travel to the service.

Organizers had predicted that the service, titled "A Time for Honor and Hope," could draw 10,000 to 30,000 people. Chief organizer Susan Hankinson forecast Tuesday that the total could be 20,000. In the end, state police Capt. Frank Monaco said attendance probably was stifled by both weather -- an overcast morning where wind held flags rigid and made a midmorning 57 degrees seem like a chill -- and the announcement that President and Mrs. Bush's meeting with victims' families would be private.

The crowd didn't seem to want for resolve, though.

There were folks such as Frank Matthews, who jetted in from Austin, Texas, with sister Ellen Muse and stood awaiting yesterday's service, hoisting a hand-lettered placard pronouncing Flight 93 passengers the "Greatest Heroes Since the Alamo."

"I'm not sure I can even make it through this service," he said. "I get choked up every time I think about it."

Eric and Lori McCoy woke their two sons at 4 a.m. to drive down from Blair County. It amounted to a somber birthday trip for Adam, 1, who was born on Sept. 11, 2001. His parents thought the commemorations would make more of an impact on his 4-year-old brother, John.

"He sees me watching all this on television so he's beginning to understand," his father said. "I'm a history buff so this makes some of these things real."

And there was Roland Corvington, the FBI's acting special agent in charge at Pittsburgh, one of the first public faces of the federal investigation in the days after the Flight 93 investigation.

He strode unnoticed by the small crowd into the makeshift memorial where mourning family members and unrelated well-wishers alike left mementos and messages of condolence.

"It angers me. It angers me that there are individuals who chose to do that to our country," Corvington said with vintage FBI solemnity as he strode away. "And I'm resolved to see that it doesn't happen again."

The service included flyovers by three hulking C-130s from the 911th Airlift Wing from the Air Reserve Station at Pittsburgh International Airport and AT-38 fighters from Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, crossing the sky in the symbolic missing man formation. The names of the 40 victims were read -- to the tolling of a 2,800-pound bell shepherded to the site by Franciscan Friar David Schlatter, a fire chaplain in Wilmington, Del. Forty white doves were released into the sky.

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.

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