SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — With the words "Let's roll" — the command issued by United Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer to lead the passenger revolt — U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and 39 victims' relatives and dignitaries turned shovels of dirt at a groundbreaking ceremony Saturday for a permanent national memorial.
"We made it. Not to our goal, not to the finish line. Certainly not any semblance of closure, but nevertheless, we made it to the next milestone of our journey," said Gordon Felt, whose brother, Edward Felt, was one of the 40 passengers and crew who died when the plane crashed into a field near rural Shanksville, about 65 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.
The government intends to have the first phase completed by Sept. 11, 2011 — the terrorist attacks' 10th anniversary.
Felt called it a "Herculean effort" to reach the groundbreaking — acquiring land from some private owners had been contentious, and some critics said the design itself honored the terrorists.
Gov. Ed Rendell said the memorial will tell of "ordinary citizens bound by a sense of urgency and action that changed the history of the world."
Flight 93 was traveling from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco when it was hijacked with the likely goal of crashing it into the White House or Capitol, the 9/11 Commission found.
With Beamer's words, passengers rushed down the airliner's narrow aisle to try to overwhelm the hijackers after learning of the coordinated attacks. The commission concluded that the hijackers downed the plane as the hostages revolted. It was the only one of four hijacked planes that day that did not take a life on the ground.
Salazar said the victims did something profoundly democratic which the terrorists could never understand: They took a vote on whether to fight for control of the plane.
"These heroes did not cow down to fear," he said.
Felt said his brother and the other 39 victims "knew they were fighting evil personified that day."
Sarah Wainio, 22, of Catonsville, Md., was one of those 40 who turned a shovel. She was 14 when her sister, Honor Elizabeth Wainio, died aboard the plane.
She called the event "huge" not just for the victims' relatives, but for the entire country and even the world so they can know the heroic story.
"To turn earth makes this real," said Patrick White, vice president of the families group. His cousin, Louis "Joey" Nacke II, died on the plane. "It's what we spent all this time to get to."
Paul Murdoch Architects of Los Angeles was chosen four years ago after a one-year competition. Five finalists were selected from 1,011 designs. Arrow Kinsley Joint Venture, of York, Pa., will construct the first phase.
The initial phase represents the vast majority of the park and will cost $58 million, of which $30 million will be paid through private contributions.
The park will be 2,200 acres, or nearly 3 square miles. A chapel featuring 40 chimes symbolizing each of the victims will stand at the entrance.
While visitors will be able to approach the edge of the crash site, only families of the victims will be able to enter the area, which will be planted with wildflowers. Nearby, victims' names will be carved on a white stone wall.
The design had drawn criticism, with some claiming the original crescent shape of the sacred ground honored the Muslim extremists who carried out the attacks. The design has since been changed to a more circular, bowl-shaped piece of land.