SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - Though the presidential candidates stepped away from their campaigns Thursday to remember those who died Sept. 11, 2001, politics was still on the minds of those who drove to this rural spot in Somerset County where 40 people died seven years ago.
Attendees anticipated Republican presidential hopeful John McCain's appearance at the memorial service for United Flight 93 passengers and crew, who saved their hijacked plane from its intended target in Washington, D.C. It crashed in a field here, now marked with an American flag.
A temporary memorial stands across the road from the crash site, awaiting the construction of a permanent memorial in time for the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks in 2011.
Photo by J.D. Cavrich
At the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., after the ceremony Thursday, Sen. John McCain gives a hug to Joanne M. Hanley, superintendent of the Flight 93 National Memorial.
McCain, an Arizona senator, and his wife, Cindy, arrived at the site in time to speak to the families of the Flight 93 victims before bells tolled after the reading of each name. A bright sun broke through the overcast sky by the end of the ceremony.
McCain spoke briefly during the service and greeted members of the public afterward before leaving Pennsylvania for New York City, where he was expected to appear at the World Trade Center site with Democratic opponent Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois.
"No American living should ever forget the heroism that occurred in the skies above this field Sept. 11, 2001," McCain began. "I have witnessed great courage and sacrifice for America's sake, but none greater than the sacrifice of those good people who grasped the gravity of the moment, understood the threat and decided to fight back at the cost of their lives."
Noreen Grimm of Avonmore in Westmoreland County, Pa., made the trip knowing she would see McCain in person for the first time. She sported patriotic tennis shoes, a McCain/Sarah Palin button and carried a homemade sign "Hockey Moms for McCain and Palin," a reference to Alaska Gov. Palin's self-identification during her vice presidential campaign.
Grimm's own son played hockey for 20 years. "I can relate to her," she said.
Grimm said she was asked to put away the sign, as the service was not a political rally. She placed it inside her coat and said she didn't mind much, as she also was seeing the memorial for the first time.
"It was very moving," she said. "My son works at Seven Springs (Mountain Resort), and I've never taken the time to come up and see it."
The resort is about an hour from the crash site and was the location where McCain chose to spend the night Wednesday.
Lisa Tomlinson and her fiance, Ted Colledge of Sproul, Pa., reflected on the state of the world today as they remembered those who died at the site.
"We came for reflection and to appreciate what we have," said Tomlinson, who admitted she cried on the way there Thursday. "It's a very emotional day."
Colledge said the day was for selflessness and remembering others, despite personal difficulty.
"During these difficult times with the middle class, instead of saying 'woe is me,' it's Sept. 11 and these people were civilian heroes," he said. "It puts it in perspective what a great country we live in. We'll see it through these troubled times. We'll be all right."
Despite recent surgery, Colledge said he had no excuse not to come.
Dawn Smith of Johnstown, Pa., said she also likes Palin and can relate to the vice presidential candidate. She conversed with Tomlinson and Colledge about the candidates, discussing uncertainty this election year and the probability of voting for the Republican ticket, despite being registered as a Democrat.
This was the first year Smith visited the Flight 93 memorial on an anniversary, though she's visited twice a year since 2001. Victims' names are carved into benches as part of the memorial, and Flight 93 ambassadors staff the memorial daily and provide biographical information on the passengers and crew. Smith's goal is to sit on every bench and learn each victim's story.
While she said the New York and Pentagon attack sites also are important, she believes Pennsylvania's site is different.
"I feel everybody should be here," she said. "These people went down fighting. They tried to do something. These people were heroes fighting evil in the air."
McCain expressed a similar sentiment.
"In the Gospel of John it is written, 'Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends,'" he said. "Such was their love; a love so sublime that only God's love surpasses it. I am in awe of it as much as I am in debt to it. May God bless their souls."