Remembering the heroes of United Flight 93

On one of the aircraft hijacked ten years ago in the skies above the US, the passengers turned upon those trying to kill them. The plane still crashed, but in open country, rather than in Washington, the attackers' apparent target.

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SHANKSVILLE  // For Americans, the cost of the 9/11 attacks is not measured in casualties and money alone.

The US regards itself as a can-do nation, largely immune from the vagaries of chance and fate. So watching helplessly as the events of September 11, 2001, unfolded, in particular, two iconic twin towers crumbling to the ground, inflicted a deep wound on the country's psyche.

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That is why here in the forests and rolling hills of Pennsylvania over the weekend, heroism and courage took centre stage instead of tragedy and grief.

It was here that United Airlines Flight 93, one of three passenger jets seized on 9/11, knifed into the ground after some of its passengers rushed the four hijackers and prevented them from flying the plane to Washington, their apparent target. All 40 passengers and crew, plus the hijackers - one Lebanese and three Saudis - were killed.

In a phone call to his wife before the aircraft flipped upside down and crashed, Tom Burnett said he and other passengers on the plane would not sit back resignedly.

"We're going to take back the airplane," he said. "It's up to us. I think we can do it."

On Saturday, the former president Bill Clinton likened the actions of those aboard Flight 93 to the defenders of the Alamo in Texas or the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae some 2,500 years ago, with a dramatic and telling difference: "They were soldiers. They knew what they had to do." The passengers and crew were not soldiers but they gave "the entire country an incalculable gift: they saved the capital from attack" and denied Al Qaeda the symbolic victory of "smashing the centre of American government", Mr Clinton told some 4,000 people gathered here for the dedication of a memorial to the passengers and crew of Flight 93.

They were, he said, "ordinary people given no time at all to decide and they did the right thing. And 2,500 years from now, I hope and pray to God that people will still remember this".

Another former US president, George W Bush, pointed to what he called a shining example of democracy in action, referring to the Flight 93 group's decision to hold a vote to decide to try to overpower the four hijackers.

"The moment America's democracy was under attack our citizens defied their captors by holding a vote," Mr Bush said. "The choice they made would cost them their lives." The storming of the cockpit "ranks among the most courageous acts in American history", he said.

For relatives of the deceased who attended the dedication ceremony, it was crucial that their loved ones not be seen as casualties. For Patrick G White, the cousin of Louis Joseph Nacke, another passenger, they were "40 heroes, not 40 victims".

Others attending the dedication saw the occasion as a message that the United States must pursue alleged terrorists wherever they are.

"We need to quit being soft. We're appeasing them too much," said Junior Reedy, a Vietnam War veteran.

Bert Maxwell, who drove with his wife from Dennison, Ohio, to attend the ceremony and "pay their respects", was more cautious.

"We're never going to be 100 per cent secure," he said.

* With additional reporting from the Associated Press