SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — Under a blue sky and against a backdrop of rolling hills, family, friends and others gathered Wednesday in a western Pennsylvania field to mourn and praise the passengers and crew who died 12 years ago after fighting back against the hijackers of United Flight 93.
"In a period of 22 minutes, our loved ones made history," said Gordon Felt, the president of the Families of Flight 93, whose brother, Edward, was among the aboard the hijacked plane on Sept. 11, 2001.
At the Flight 93 National Memorial ceremony, families of those aboard the plane, along with about 200 people, read the names of 33 passengers and seven crew members aloud, and bells tolled for each, as they marked the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
As the names were read, a light haze began to burn off the surrounding hills. The memorial wall of white stone has each victim's name engraved on a separate panel, and the scene was framed by yellow wildflowers in the nearby fields.
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.
As passenger Todd Beamer issued the rallying cry "Let's roll," he and others rushed down the airliner's aisle to try to overwhelm the hijackers after learning of the coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The 9/11 Commission concluded that the hijackers downed the plane as the hostages revolted.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recalled the sacrifice the passengers made.
"We never know when we'll be called to lay down our lives for others," she said, speaking of the bravery of passengers and crew who fought back against the hijackers.
Flight attendant Susan Gahs had a perspective on how the memorial has evolved, and how people in the airline industry still feel about 9/11. She grew up in nearby Shanksville, and remembers when the crash site was a coal mine.
"It's very emotional. It's an everyday thing for us, going to work, through security. We never forget," said Gahs, who praised the park design.
Later Wednesday, park rangers and volunteers gave presentations about Flight 93 and the creation of the memorial park, located in Shanksville, about 75 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
A groundbreaking for a 6,800-square-foot visitor center was held Tuesday. The building will be broken in two at the point of the plane's flight path overhead. It is expected to open in late 2015.
The first features of the memorial in Shanksville were completed and dedicated in September 2011, including new roads and a Memorial Plaza near the crash site. Forty memorial groves of trees have also been planted, and large sections of the park have been replanted or reforested.
The tale of the courageous actions of everyday people aboard Flight 93 helped provide a measure of optimism for the American public in the dark days and weeks that followed the terrorist attacks.
It also inspired a 2006 docudrama, "United 93," the first big-screen dramatization about the terrorist attacks that used a cast of unknown actors and played out roughly in real time from the passenger check-in to the crash.
Visitors to the park have left more than 35,000 tributes at the site, and they have been collected as part of an archival collection.