SHANKSVILLE, Pennsylvania (CNN) – First lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush on Saturday led the commemoration for the victims of Flight 93, which crashed and burned as passengers and crew fought hijackers determined to strike the U.S. Capitol on September 11, 2001.
Standing on a windswept outlook at the site of the future Flight 93 national memorial, the first ladies remembered the 40 people who took off from Newark International Airport in New Jersey nine years ago, and found themselves in combat with four al Qaeda terrorists.
"I come here as an American, filled with a sense of awe at the heroism of my fellow citizens. I come as a wife, a daughter, and a sister, heartbroken at the loss so many of you have endured," Obama said to survivors and family members of those who died. They were part of a throng of dignitaries and locals who came to the annual event.
Obama said the people on the plane were from different backgrounds and walks of life.
"They all took a different path to that September morning. But in the awful moment when the facts became clear and they were called to make an impossible choice, they all found the same resolve. They agreed to the same bold plan," she said, referring to their decision to attack the hijackers.
"They rose as one. They acted as one. Together, they changed history's course. In the days that followed, when we learned about the heroes of Flight 93," we were "proud," "awed" and "inspired" but not surprised because the people on the plane had provided service and sacrificed much in their daily lives, she said.
Obama and Bush praised each other in their words. Obama thanked her predecessor for helping the nation heal after the attack, and Bush praised her successor, saying she was pleased "to be here with the first lady who serves this country with such grace."
Bush noted that the terrorists who hijacked the plane had other targets in mind, but the spot near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, "was chosen by the passengers of Flight 93, who spared our country from even greater horrors."
"As we gather to remember those who were lost and honor their courage, we are deeply grateful," she said.
Speaking generally about 9/11, Bush praised the first responders in Shanksville, the rescuers at the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon, and the millions who took part in blood drives, vigils and memorial services. In the wake of the attacks, Americans said prayers in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, and "we found unity in shared grief."
Speaking about those who lost loved ones and still feel the wounds of loss, she said "we know the memories of your loved ones have not aged by time."
"You inspire us with your grace and strength," she said.
She also praised those "who oppose radicalism and terrorism at this very hour in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places around the world. On this day, Americans have no division."
Others who spoke at the ceremony were Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Gordon Felt, president of Families of Flight 93. As each name of the 40 victims were read, a bell was rung. A chorus and a string quartet performed and clergymen spoke and prayed.