SHANKSVILLE (KDKA/AP) – It’s been called the first battle in the War on Terror, and it was fought by the 40 passengers and crew of Flight 93, who in their final moments their lives exemplified the American spirit.

“They came together as strangers, didn’t know each other, and within 30 minutes of that hijacking formed a unit and tried to take back that plane,” said historian Tom McMillan.

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While much is known about their heroic act, much will never be known, but like investigators at the crash scene, McMillan, who is also a Pittsburgh Penguins executive, painstakingly puts together the scattered fragments. What emerges is the most complete picture yet of what happened inside that plane.

“They were trying to take over the plane. There’s a story that they downed the plane. They were trying to save their lives,” he says.

In his book, he has never before seen pictures of the crash site and tells the story of the local people who arrived on the scene, shocked to find a smoking hole in the ground and little resembling an airplane.
 
“The plane crashed at 563 miles an hour and there was nothing there. The plane shattered,” McMillan said. “Their bewilderment at what they saw and didn’t see.”

He recounts the efforts of the first responders and volunteers.

The people of Somerset County who literally opened their homes to the arriving families of the victims; focusing on coroner Wally Miller, a local funeral home director, whose task it was to identifying the victims’ remains.

“He wasn’t trained for prepared to deal with this or the media but the families to a person praise him because of the personal, small town touch that the got,” says McMillan.

In a second-by-second reconstruction, he also tells the story of those everyday passengers who found bravery within, sprang into action and altered history.

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“They weren’t trying to achieve historic greatness, they were trying to save themselves, but in doing so they achieved greatness,” McMillan adds.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service provided a tour of the visitor center being built at the Flight 93 National Memorial on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The memorial marks the spot where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field after the passengers fought back against hijackers.

A permanent memorial was dedicated on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Last year, the Park Service awarded a $20 million contract to URS Group Inc. of Morrisville, N.C., to build the visitor center and do other site improvements.

The visitor’s center is expected to open late next year. Officials hope it will increase the number of people who visit the memorial annually from about 300,000 to 500,000.

For more information on McMillan’s book, “Flight 93 – The Story, The Aftermath, and The Legacy of American Courage on 9/11,” click here.

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