SHANKSVILLE, Pa. -- The 40 passengers and crew who fought back against their hijackers aboard Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, performed one of the most courageous acts in U.S. history, former President George W. Bush said Saturday at a ceremony dedicating the first phase of a memorial at the nation's newest national park.
The hijackers intended to crash the plane in Washington, but "never made it because of the determination and valor of the passengers and crew of Flight 93, that plane crashed in this field, less than 20 minutes by air" from the target, said Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service.
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, but they gave "the entire country an incalculable gift. They saved the capital from attack," an untold amount of lives and denied al-Qaida the symbolic victory of "smashing the center of American government."
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."
They were among several speakers at the dedication of the Flight 93 National Memorial who told of the sacrifice and honor of the passengers and crew.
The ceremony drew more than 4,000 people, including hundreds of victims' relatives, to the rural Pennsylvania field.
Those aboard knew it was more than a hijacking, but an opening shot in a new war, Vice President Joe Biden said. He said they acted as citizen patriots have done since Capt. John Parker said in April 1775 that if war is what they want, "then let it begin here."
Bush also pointed to what he called a shining example of democracy in action, referring to the group's decision to hold a vote to decide to try to overpower the hijackers.
"The moment America's democracy was under attack our citizens defied their captors by holding a vote," he said.
The storming of the cockpit "ranks among the most courageous acts in American history," Bush said.