SHANKSVILLE - As seats slowly filled and the sun burned off the last of the fog Tuesday morning, Carol Whelan and Joan Burkholtz talked quietly near the sunflower they'd brought to the Flight 93 National Memorial.
They bring one every year, Burkholtz said, for their cousin Richard Guadagno, killed 11 years ago when United Airlines Flight 93 slammed into the Somerset County field where they now stood.
"It's our way to come and pay our respects. It doesn't matter if there's dignitaries or a big crowd here," Whelan said.
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
Vice President Joe Biden (center) and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar participate in a wreath-laying ceremony Tuesday at the Flight 93 National Memorial in?Shanksville.
The audience at the 11th commemoration of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was substantially smaller than its predecessor, with roughly 1,000 spectators gathered to watch Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and other guests proclaim the site's national importance.
"Like all the families, we wish we weren't here. We wish we didn't have to be here. We wish we didn't have to commemorate all this," Biden said, flanked by fluttering U.S. and Pennsylvania flags.
"I also know from my own experience that today is just as momentous a day for all of you - just as momentous a day in your life, for each of your families - as every Sept. 11th has been, regardless of the anniversary," he said.
Victims' families made up a sizable portion of the crowd gathered Tuesday, many saying they intended to go every year for as long as they can.
Several said they expect this to become the norm as the attacks grow more distant in time: Relatives, and perhaps those who remember the Sept. 11 attacks firsthand, will likely visit for years to come, while more-removed younger generations will attend for school trips, they said.
Gone are the crowds of thousands who backed up traffic before last year's ceremony. And while the park in the past year has tallied record visitor numbers, it's the family members - like Yachiyo Kuge, who visits each year from Osaka, Japan, to honor her son, Toshiya Kuge - who will likely be present for every memorial ceremony.
"For all of us, it's a mutual burial ground. All of us have a reason to come back," the Rev. Paul Britton of Kingston, N.Y., said as school-age military cadets gathered at the memorial's Wall of Names.
Britton, whose sister Marion Britton was killed on Flight 93, delivered Tuesday's opening prayer.
Britton's family keeps a gravesite on Long Island, "but this is a second grave - maybe the primary grave. She's with these comrades," he said.
After the dignitaries' speeches and the reading of the 40 victims' names, Biden and Salazar joined a cluster of Flight 93 family members in a walk to the memorial's restricted "Sacred Ground." Blocked by a ceremonial gate, hewn from hemlock by Amish craftsmen, the ground marks the downed plane's wide debris field.
Asked what he expects of the memorial's future, Britton drew a comparison to the Gettysburg battlefield: No one living remembers the Civil War battle, he said, yet young students swarm over the site even today.
"That teaching - it's a tangible, incarnate piece of America," he said.
But the Flight 93 memorial isn't yet complete, as several speakers and family members pointed out Tuesday. Millions of dollars are needed to complete a planned visitors' center, a learning center and a towering set of 40 massive wind chimes slated to be visible from the nearby Lincoln Highway.
The number 40 is a recurring theme for the site, with 40 gashes in the memorial gate and plans in place to grow 40 groves of 40 trees each in the victims' memory.
Pointing out the crash field's wooded surroundings, Whelan and Burkholtz said it was a fitting spot for their cousin's remains.
"He was a tree-hugger, if you will," Whelan said.
"If anything, this was a perfect resting place," Burkholtz said, noting that the appearance at last year's ceremony of a lone butterfly made her feel as though Guadagno was somehow watching.
A few minutes later, as Biden spoke from the podium, an orange butterfly landed on a child's shoulder two rows behind her.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.