“Grieve not, nor speak of me with tears, but laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you there.”
- poet Isla Paschal Richardson, as quoted by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge during his 9/11 anniversary address Sunday.
Standing before an audience of thousands, Tom Ridge reached out to 40 incredible heroes and delivered a speech for the ages.
Pennsylvania’s governor on 9/11, Ridge is among the most eloquent and passionate men to have graced our political landscape. He was at his best Sunday, as the nation – and a huge gathering at the Flight 93 National Memorial – remembered the tragic events of a decade ago.
Ridge spoke directly to the 40 passengers and crew who perished when Flight 93 crashed into that Somerset County field on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 - those strangers who together found the courage to confront their attackers and save countless other lives on the ground, even as they lost their own.
And an audience already deeply moved by the voices of singing children and the tearful words of impassioned speakers sat riveted, as Ridge called the spirits of the “40 good shepherds” to join in the tribute to their actions.
“With you beside us here on this September 11th,” Ridge said, “we continue to celebrate a legacy.”
Ten years ago, after seeing the devastation at Shanksville first from a helicopter and then from the side of that smoking crater, Ridge faced the challenge of putting words to the moment.
He wondered aloud that day: “How do you explain to America’s children something like this can happen?”
Thus, his relationship with the 40 heroes began amid smoking trees and the smell of jet fuel, and was strengthened as he returned to Shanksville time and time again to honor their memory.
They and he grew closer as Ridge accepted the responsibility of serving as his country’s first director of homeland security after the events of 9/11, and became fully entwined when he took on the duty of helping lead the effort to raise funds to build the permanent memorial.
So it was on Sunday that Ridge greeted those 40 passengers and crew members as old friends.
“Ten years ago, many of us stood on nearby fields,” he told the heroes. “We were angry, and we were heart-broken.
“And we wondered: Would we, could we - had we been in your place - show the same resolve, the same selflessness, the same astonishing valor?”
He pointed to their sense of duty.
“Your last long embrace of your nation profoundly moved our hearts years ago.”
He expressed awe at their courage.
“Ten years on, you remain an emblem of America’s great glory.”
And he pondered what it was in the essence of those individuals that prompted them to act aboard that hijacked plane.
“We wondered in those early days, was this uniquely American, or uniquely you? Or a unique combination?”
Ridge expressed a theme of the weekend – that time has served only to strengthen our feelings toward those 40 individuals.
“We wonder if you are surprised that 10 years later we are even prouder of you, and even more grateful.”
And he suggested that while the 40 likely saved many lives on that day, their story is changing lives even now.
“Ten years on, your actions still call to us. They remind us to be our best selves, to take care of one another.”
Ridge acknowledged that the 40 might be embarrassed at the attention they have received.
“We suspect that you may not be comfortable when we call you heroes. But humor us, for you are heroes, without a doubt.”
And he promised his 40 guests that they would never be forgotten.
“Forty heroes, as you sit beside us here, we pledge to you that we will ensure that future generations know your names, and your remarkable story, just as we have been privileged to do.”
On a weekend of touching homilies and meaningful orations, Ridge’s embrace of the heroes of Flight 93 provided a moment worthy of their tangible presence Sunday at the place where their legend was formed.
“Providence is now your peace,” he told the 40. “But pride in you is ours.”
Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat.