Sixteen years ago, then-Congressman Mike Pence found himself fleeing a panicked U.S. Capitol building for an office across the street where he learned a hijacked Boeing 757 was likely heading his way.
And it was only 12 minutes out, he said. “It was the longest 12 minutes of my life.”
But then 13 minutes passed. And then 14, he said.
And then came word that United Flight 93 and its four al-Qaeda hijackers instead crashed on the onetime swath of strip mine land — where he stood as the U.S. vice president on Monday, thanks to 40 men and women on board who rushed forward to save lives that day — perhaps “my own life,” he said.
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“For me, it’s personal,” said Pence, his voice cracking with emotion. “I will always believe that I and many others in our nation’s capital were able to go home that day and hug our families because of the courage and sacrifice of the heroes of Flight 93.”
Marking the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Pence stood at a podium at the Flight 93 National Memorial’s plaza and spoke to a somber crowd of several hundred — many of them loved ones of the plane’s 33 passengers and seven crew members who crashed here on Sept. 11, 2001.
Pence described that moment as the end of America’s “first battle” against terrorism.
And his 22-minute speech was both a tribute to 40 fallen heroes who he said acted with courage and selflessness that day — and a warning to those who would seek to terrorize the United States again, vowing the Trump Administration won’t rest until ISIS and like-minded militant groups are defeated.
“Together as one nation and one people, we will drive the cancer of terrorism from the face of the earth,” Pence said.
“We fight because our fallen heroes demand justice,” he said, noting the passengers and crew of Flight 93 — the first to fight — and the thousands who have died fighting for the nation in the war on terror since.
While it was his first time serving as keynote speaker at the Flight 93 site, he told the crowd he’d visited once before, in 2002.
He and his wife, Karen — who joined him Monday — and their three children toured what was then a small makeshift memorial on their way from Washington, D.C., to Indiana.
Pence recalled the site’s plywood wall, decorated with heartfelt tributes to ordinary people who made an “extraordinary” sacrifice on Sept. 11, 2001.
He also recalled a wooden cross — and the moment National Park Service officials told him Flight 93 could have struck the U.S. Capitol Building while he was still inside if it continued on its likely path.
“I’m here today to pay a debt of gratitude to the heroes of Flight 93 on a much more personal basis,” he told the crowd. “Their actions that day saved American lives. And as my wife, Karen knows, it’s a debt I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay.”
Pence’s visit Monday continued a tradition that has brought several members of the executive branch to the memorial site over the past 15 years. Former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all made at least one visit between 2002 and 2011. Former Vice-President Joe Biden spoke in 2012.
Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat.