STONYCREEK, Pa. -- Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta appeared somber and reflective as he stood upon "hallowed ground" at the Flight 93 National Memorial on the eve of the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I came here to Shanksville to extend our nation's gratitude to the heroes of Flight 93 and their families," Mr. Panetta said.
"At the cost of their own lives, they made a fateful decision to fight back and in so doing they prevented an attack on the U.S. Capitol. I am especially grateful to them because on that day I was at the U.S. Capitol."
The 40 passengers and crew members of Flight 93 are credited with thwarting the deadly intentions of four al-Qaeda terrorists who hijacked their plane less than an hour after it left Newark International Airport.
Instead of crashing into a national landmark in Washington, the plane barreled into a picturesque Somerset County hillside at a speed of more than 500 miles an hour, leaving rescuers with the harrowing task of sorting through fragments of the Boeing 757 and its passengers.
"That kind of courage is what makes this country strong, and we better damn well remember that every day," Mr. Panetta said of the actions of the passengers and military members who fight to protect the county.
As director of the CIA when Osama bin Laden, whom he referred to as al-Qaeda's spiritual leader, was killed in May 2011, Mr. Panetta in some ways has done his part to avenge the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
On Monday, he praised military and intelligence agencies for bringing those responsible for 9/11 to justice and preventing similar attacks from occurring again, but he warned that the terrorist organization remains a threat in Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa.
"Make no mistake, we will pursue and fight them wherever they go," he said. "There will be no haven where they can hide from justice."
Patrick White, president of Families of Flight 93, guided the defense secretary from the memorial's entrance to the Wall of Names, where the pair stopped at each stone representing the victims.
After speaking individually with family members, Mr. Panetta walked to the site of the crash and had a quiet moment of reflection.
"I was very pleased to see that he felt that connection and comfort with the crash site," said Mr. White, whose cousin, Louis Joseph Nacke II, was killed in the crash.
The memorial has seen a three-fold increase in visitors since it was dedicated a year ago.
Mr. Panetta is among more than 350,000 people who visited the site this year.
Tony Manella and his wife, Gayle, stopped on their way back to Pittsburgh after celebrating their one-year anniversary weekend.
"It's right in our backyard and it's too close to home," Mr. Manella said.
More than 1,000 bus tours have visited the site this year.
"This was a terrible thing to happen," said Doris Heady, an 84-year-old Canadian Lakes, Mich., resident who visited the site on the last leg of a bus tour of historical sites. "It makes your spine shiver and makes you cringe."
Officials expect visitation to increase after a visitor center is completed in 2014.
Pending an additional $5 million in donations, plans also exist to build a learning center at the memorial.
Gordon Felt, whose brother Edward died in the crash, is pleased with the memorial's progress.
"When we see this memorial, it's what we envisioned all those years ago and it's coming to life before our eyes," he said.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Taryn Luna is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Taryn Luna at: email@example.com, or 412-263-1985.
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