When the sun rose in the sky eleven years ago today, it was a peaceful September morning, bright blue skies, with puffy white clouds, and the smell of fall was in the air, much like this morning. By the time it set nearly 3,000 people were gone. The most lives lost on American soil in a single day since the battle of Antietam 150 years ago.
With the distance of more than a decade, 9/11 can feel like a part of a different era. But nothing could be further from the truth.
On September 11th, 2001, innocent men and women went to work at the World Trade Center. They reported for duty at the Pentagon. They boarded American Flights 11 and 77, United 93 and 175. They did nothing to provoke or deserve the deliberate act of murder that al Qaeda carried out.
One of the lessons of 9/11 is that evil is real, but so is Courage and determination. When the planes struck the World Trade Center, courageous firefighters and police officers charged up the stairs into the flames. As the towers neared collapse, they continued the rescue efforts.
Ultimately, more than 400 police officers and firefighters sacrificed their lives to save others. Among them was the chief of the New York City Fire Department Peter Gancy. As a colleague put it, "he would never ask anyone to do something he didn't do himself".
The Pentagon service members and civilians pulled friends and strangers from burning rubble. One Special Forces Soldier recalls reaching through a cloud of smoke in search of the wounded. As he entered one room, he prayed to find someone alive. He discovered a severely burned woman and carried her to safety. Later, in the hospital, where she explained she'd been praying for rescue, she called him her guardian angel.
Specialist Beau Doboszenski was a tour guide that morning, on the far side of the building -- so far away, in fact, he never heard the plane hit. But he shortly felt the commotion. He could have gone home -- no one would have blamed him. But he was also a trained EMT and came from a family of firefighters. So, when people started streaming out of the building and screaming, he sprinted toward the crash site. For hours, he alternated between treating his co-workers and dashing into the inferno with a team of six men.
Micky Fyock, a volunteer fire chief in Woodsboro, Maryland, 60 miles away, after working all day, when he heard that evening that the rescue workers at the Pentagon needed a fire truck - a small fire truck, small enough to fit through tight places, He knew he had a '54 Mack, which was the smallest one around. Fresh off an all-day shift, he barreled down the highway and battled the blaze all night with thousands of others.
At dawn, exhausted and covered with soot, he sat on a bench and confronted a man - a man who he said was wondering aloud, why am I still alive? If I had not been at the dentist, I would have been in the office, my office, totally destroyed, with my colleagues gone. Why me?
When the passengers and crew realized the plane had been hijacked, they reported the news calmly. When they learned that the terrorists had crashed other planes into targets on the ground, they accepted greater responsibilities. In the back of the cabin, the passengers gathered to devise a strategy.
At the moment America's democracy was under attack, our citizens defied their captors by holding a vote. The choice they made would cost them their lives, and they knew it.
Many passengers called their loved ones to say goodbye then hang up to perform their final act. One said, "They're getting ready to break into the cockpit. I have to go. I love you." Another said, "It's up to us. I think we can do it."
In one of the most stirring accounts, Todd Beamer, a father of two and a pregnant wife at home in New Jersey, asked the air operator to join him in reciting the Lord's Prayer. Then he helped lead the charge with the words "Let's roll."
With their selfless act, the men and women who stormed the cockpit lived out the words, "Greater love hath no man than this, which a man laid down his life for his friends." And with their brave decision, they launched the first counter offensive of the war on terror. The most likely target of the hijacked plane was the United States Capitol. We'll never know how many innocent people might have been lost, but we do know this, Americans are alive today because the passengers and crew of Flight 93 chose to act, and our nation will be forever grateful.
The 3000 souls who perished that day left a great deal behind. They left parents, spouses, children and grandchildren who miss them dearly. They left successful businesses and promising careers and a lifetime of dreams they will never have the chance to fulfill. They left something else -- a legacy of bravery and selflessness that will always inspire America.
For 11 years, our service men and women have risked and given their lives to prevent our enemies from attacking America again. They've kept us safe, they've made us proud, and they've upheld the spirit of service shown by the passengers who lost and gave their lives that day.
My Dad used to say that courage lies in every man's heart, and his expectation was that one day - it would be summoned again. Well, here, on September 11, 2001, at exactly 9:37 a.m., it was summoned again. It was summoned from the hearts of the thousands of people who worked to save hundreds.
It was summoned in the hearts of all those first responders who answered the call. For courage lies deepest and beats the loudest in the heart of Americans. Don't forget it. We will not forget them.