U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his first visit to the site of the September 11, 2001 crash of United Airlines flight 93 on Monday, and said the passengers who overpowered hijackers on the plane began the fight against terrorism - a fight he said must continue in order to protect freedom.
It is a windswept field of brown grass. There is nothing to distinguish it from thousands of others like it in rural southwestern Pennsylvania - nothing except what happened here one Tuesday morning foru and a half years ago.
"The plane actually came in from that direction, came directly this way and crashed into the field, if you can see the American flag," said National Park Service Superintendent Joanna Hanley.
Rumsfeld: "I can."
Hanley: "In between the flag and the trees at 580 miles an hour [930 kph]."
That is National Park Service Superintendent Joanna Hanley, of the Flight 93 Memorial Project, who gave Secretary Rumsfeld a tour of the site on Monday. She showed him the benches made by schoolchildren, and engraved with the names of all 40 victims. She showed him the small monuments that have been built by various groups. At the base of one, Secretary Rumsfeld put a small medallion with his name and the seal of the Defense Department. She showed him the fence where some of the 150,000 annual visitors put notes, or signs, or pictures or keepsakes to honor the dead. And Ms. Hanley took the secretary to the exact spot, far across the field, near a grove of trees, where Flight 93 went down. She told him it is just three seconds of flying time from the local elementary school.
"The first responders, when they came, there was nothing there," explained Joanna Hanley. "They actually thought they were coming out on a rescue effort but they couldn't find anything."
Only family members and special visitors are allowed to go to the crash site itself. It is marked only by two small American flags. Ms. Hanley says the families consider the spot a cemetery, the final resting place of their loved ones.
Investigators have concluded that the hijackers wanted to fly the plane to Washington, just 250 kilometers away, and crash it into a building, perhaps the Capitol where the Congress was meeting. The passengers fought back against the hijackers and prevented the attack on Washington, but they lost their lives in the process.
Secretary Rumsfeld paid tribute to them during his visit.
"This crash site marks the place where America really started to fight back," said Donald Rumsfeld.
The secretary took the theme of "fighting back" with him to his next stop on Monday, the U.S. Army War College not far away. There he told senior officers taking a year to study such subjects as strategy and international affairs, that they and all Americans must continue the fight that the heroes of Flight 93 began.
"Today there are some who want America to go back on the defensive, to the strategy that failed before September 11th," he said. "They say that a retreat from Iraq would provide an American escape from the violence. However, we know that any reprieve would be short lived. To terrorists, the West would remain the great Satan. The war that the terrorists began would continue. And free people would continue to be their targets."
But Secretary Rumsfeld acknowledged that all Americans do not agree with him. He said the government needs to do a better job of convincing people at home and abroad of the need to fight the terrorists and protect the free way of life, and he said the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is part of that. An official said most of the military officers in his audience have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or both, and that one Iraqi and one Afghan officer were also there. Secretary Rumsfeld said the most significant division in the current American political debate is, in his words, "between those who realize that we are, in fact, a nation at war, and those who do not."