WASHINGTON — Seventeen years after the Sept. 11 attacks that left nearly 3,000 dead, President Donald Trump paid tribute Tuesday to the passengers and crew members of United Airlines Flight 93 who stormed the plane’s cockpit, forcing hijackers to crash into a Pennsylvania field.
During their successful struggle to overcome four al-Qaida hijackers, Trump said, passengers and crew “rose up, defied the enemy, took control of their destiny and changed the course of history.”
“They boarded the plane as strangers, and they entered eternity linked forever as true heroes,” Trump said at a memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
First lady Melania Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke accompanied the president, who solemnly told the stories of passengers grabbing their cellphones to call loved ones before they determined to storm the cockpit.
Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke at a memorial in Washington for the 125 Americans in the Pentagon building and 59 passengers and crew who died when terrorists slammed American Airlines Flight 77 into the building at 9:37 a.m.
Pence recalled starting a normal workday in Capitol Hill when he learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center twin towers. Within an hour, he heard someone shout, “The Pentagon’s been hit.”
The following day Pence went to the Pentagon and witnessed valiant attempts to rescue more survivors.
The terrorists “hoped to break our spirit, and they failed,” he said.
Elsewhere, Americans looked back on 9/11 Tuesday with tears and somber tributes to the victims of the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil.
Victims’ relatives said prayers for their country, pleaded for national unity and pressed officials not to use the 2001 terror attacks as a political tool in a polarized nation.
Seventeen years after losing her husband, Margie Miller came from her suburban home to join thousands of relatives, survivors, rescuers and others on a misty morning at the memorial plaza where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood.
“To me, he is here. This is my holy place,” she said before the hourslong reading of the names of her husband, Joel Miller, and the nearly 3,000 others killed when hijacked jets slammed into the towers, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.
The 9/11 commemorations are by now familiar rituals, centered on reading the names of the dead. But each year at ground zero, victims’ relatives infuse the ceremony with personal messages of remembrance, inspiration and concern.
For Nicholas Haros Jr., that concern is officials who make comparisons to 9/11 or invoke it for political purposes.
“Stop. Stop,” implored Haros, who lost his 76-year-old mother, Frances. “Please stop using the bones and ashes of our loved ones as props in your political theater. Their lives, sacrifices and deaths are worth so much more. Let’s not trivialize them.”
This year’s anniversary comes as a heated midterm election cycle kicks into high gear. But there have long been some efforts to separate the solemn anniversary from political campaigns. The group 9/11 Day, which promotes volunteering on the anniversary, asks candidates not to campaign or run political ads for the day. Organizers of the ground zero ceremony allow politicians to attend, but they’ve been barred since 2011 from reading names or delivering remarks.
Other relatives laid bare the toll their losses had taken on their families. Thomas Langer said his brother, Timmy, “drank himself to death” after losing his wife, Vanessa, and their unborn child on Sept. 11.
“I witnessed my brother endure the pain that no one human being was ever meant to bear,” Langer said.
Memorials to 9/11 continue to grow at Shanksville, where a newly dedicated Tower of Voices will eventually include a wind chime for each of the 40 people killed there, and ground zero, where work is to begin soon on a pathway honoring rescue and recovery workers.
It will serve as a way to recognize those who became sick or died from exposure to toxins released when the Trade Center’s twin towers collapsed. Researchers have documented elevated rates of respiratory ailments, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses among people who spent time in the rubble.
About 38,500 people have applied to a compensation fund, and over $3.9 billion in claims have been approved.
Victims’ families, too, have evolved and grown.
“Even though I never met you,” Isabella Del Corral said of her slain grandfather, Joseph Piskadlo, “I’ll never forget you.”
Contact Debra J. Saunders at email@example.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.