WASHINGTON – The passengers and crew of United Flight 93, along with others killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, received Congress' highest honor Wednesday in a ceremony at the Capitol awarding them the Congressional Gold Medal.
"Tomorrow, we mourn for what was taken. Today, we consider what was left behind: stories we tell and re-tell, a legacy we strive to claim, and families we ache to serve," said House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio).
With numerous family members in attendance, three medals were presented: one to go on display at New York's 9/11 memorial and museum, one for the Pentagon, and one at the Flight 93 memorial site in Shanksville, Pa., where 40 passengers and crews were killed after what is believed to be a struggle for control of the fourth plane hijacked in the 9/11 terrorist assault.
The Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate – Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), House Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and House Minority Leader Mitch McConell (R., Ky.) – led the ceremony in the soaring Emancipation Hall, part of the Capitol visitors' center. About a dozen relatives of Flight 93 passengers and crew attended.
Many believe the flight was headed to the Capitol, and that the very officials hosting the ceremony could have been killed, and the building destroyed, if not for the actions of those on board.
"In addition to paying tribute to them, and drawing inspiration, we also express gratitude today – gratitude for what they did to save lives in this building, in this city, and, of course, what they did for America," Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said in a speech at the ceremony.
In accepting the medal, Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, said, "the gravity of today's ceremony and its location are most appropriate, and gratefully appreciated."
After the ceremony, Casey and the families visited a plaque near the Capitol rotunda that lists the names of the 40 victims on board.
"It's different," from some past ceremonies, said Kiki Homer, a New Yorker whose brother, LeRoy Homer, was the co-pilot. "This is a little more celebratory. It's the nation recognizing the significance and remembering."
After taking photos with the medal and the plaque, the family members at the Capitol left for the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, where the medal will be displayed.
The medal is Congress' highest honor. Its recipients include George Washington, Winston Churchill, Joe Louis, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Robinson, Robert Frost and Bob Hope. Congress in 2011 voted to award the medals honoring those killed on 9/11. It has taken years to finalize the designs and present them.
The front of the Shanksville medal reads "A common field one day, a field of honor forever." It was made at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.
On the back are 40 stars, an image of the Capitol, and the words: "We honor the passengers and crew of Flight 93 who perished in a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001. Their courageous action will be remembered forever."
We'll have more in tomorrow's Inquirer and here online.