(CNN) – Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton spoke solemnly Saturday at the unveiling of the memorial for victims of United Airlines Flight 93.
“With their brave decision, they launched the first counteroffensive in the war on terror,” said Bush, who appeared emotional as he spoke near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to families and friends of those who died in the crash.
All 40 passengers and crew members were killed after confronting hijackers aboard the Boeing 757 on the morning of September 11, 2001.
The hijacked plane, widely believed to be targeting the White House or the U.S. Capitol, crashed in a field outside Shanksville.
Recounting heroic details on the flight just moments before it ended, Bush said, “What happened above this Pennsylvania field ranks among the most courageous acts of American history.”
Bush, who served as commander in chief when the United States went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, said 9/11 proved that conditions in other countries could have an impact in American streets.
“It may be tempting to think it doesn’t matter what happens to a villager in Afghanistan or a child in Africa, but the temptation of isolation is deadly wrong,” Bush said.
He also told stories of unity in the days that followed the September 11 attacks and spoke to the intense political debates that have shaped Washington over much of the past decade.
“But Americans have never been defined by our disagreements,” Bush said. “Whatever challenges we face in the future … we must never allow our differences to harden into divisions.”
After ending his speech, Bush quickly walked back to his chair and sat down, while the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Clinton, vividly emotional, then walked to the podium to begin his speech but struggled to get through his first few sentences.
“Before President Bush came up to speak, I asked him if he was having a hard time, and he said, ‘I was doing fine until I looked at all of you’,” Clinton said, pointing to the audience.
In a speech laced with similar themes of unity and resilience, Clinton credited Bush and President Barack Obama for preventing another attack on American soil in the last decade – a statement that was met with strong applause.
“There has always been a special place in the common memory for people who deliberately, knowingly, certainly lay down their lives for other people to live,” Clinton said, referring to the victims of Flight 93.
Clinton, whose term ended just nine months before the attacks, compared the acts on the plane to the Battle of the Alamo, as well as the Spartan offense against the Persian Empire 2,500 years ago.
Both stories involved a small minority fighting against the odds for a larger cause.
“And 2,500 years from now, I hope and pray to God that people will still remember this,” Clinton said.
The former president closed his speech by announcing that he and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had agreed to hold a bipartisan event to raise more money for the memorial.