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Family members celebrate heroism of Flight 93 passengers

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — Amid the forests and rolling hills of rural Somerset County lie 2,200 acres of national parkland and one of our country’s most moving memorials.

“It’s hard for me to look at these names on the wall because I realized what they stopped,” said Gene Yockey of Alaska.

Like many who visit the Flight 93 National Memorial, Yockey was overcome with emotion, remembering how 40 people, hurtling through the sky on a hijacked plane 20 years ago, fought back against unimaginable terror.

“Todd Beemer, he’s my hero, because ‘Let’s roll,’ I’ll never forget those words,” said Yockey.

Had the courageous passengers not revolted, the 9/11 Commission believes Flight 93 would have reached the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, in just 18 minutes. But they did rise up, and became our first soldiers in America’s long war against terrorism.

Gordie Felt’s brother Ed was a passenger on the plane, on what was meant to be a routine business trip. Ed was one of 13 people who made calls from the plane.

“This memorial is about 40 unique individuals who acted extraordinarily heroically that morning,” said Felt.

It was through those calls passengers learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“They had some information. They took matters into their hands, they said, ‘No, we are not going to let this happen. And as a matter of fact, we’re coming for you,’ as they tried to retake that plane and it’s an inspiration,” said Felt.

As president of the Flight 93 Family Group, Felt and others helped guide the creation of the memorial to be just that, inspiring: a tribute to heroes. And the transformation is truly stunning.

Felt was among the first group of family members allowed at the scene.

“All we saw was this blackened crater. You could still smell jet fuel. And we looked at this amazing site of violence and horror that day,” Felt said.

Today, what was the smoldering impact site is marked only by a giant boulder in the midst of a verdant and peaceful meadow. The site still holds the remains of the passengers and crew, so it is considered sacred ground: visible to all, but accessible only by family members.

“The transformation of this site has, I think, has been exquisite,” said Felt. “It’s gone from a place of horrible violence and loss to a place where people come in and feel at peace. And you commonly hear that amongst visitors that there’s just something special about this place.”

And now, there is a new generation of visitors to the Flight 93 Memorial. Some were not yet born when 9/11 happened, others were just school children the time, but all are inspired by the courage of 40 strangers who united and even took a democratic vote to fight back.

Middle school student Makenna Haas remembers learning about Flight 93: “we learned about it in school. I think they were definitely heroes.”

Another woman visiting the memorial was in elementary school at the time, “It was just very powerful to see everything, because we were both young when it happened.”

Felt says the story of the passengers and crew of Flight 93 is rare in today’s time.

“These 40 people came together and did something extraordinary. And they didn’t care about political differences, they didn’t care about racial differences, international nationals. I mean they had a common goal. We have to heed the lesson that they taught us and apply that to our lives,” said Felt. “Do what’s right. Work together. Get over petty differences and see the big picture and the big picture is freedom,” said Felt.