Neither George W. Bush nor Bill Clinton specifically mentioned the fractured state of relations in Washington. But their sharing of a stage and their comments here in a field where Flight 93 slammed into the ground stood in sharp contrast to the current discord.
“We have a duty to find common purpose as a nation,” said Mr. Bush, who was president during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In a warning that seemed aimed at his fellow Republicans, including presidential candidates, some of whom are calling for the United States to limit its footprint overseas, he warned that “the temptation of isolation is deadly wrong.”
Mr. Clinton thanked Mr. Bush — and President Obama — “for keeping us from being attacked again,” and the audience, previously somber and silent, applauded.
He also drew applause when he announced that he and the Republican House speaker, John A. Boehner, who was in the audience, had agreed to host a bipartisan fund-raising event in Washington to help raise the $10 million needed to complete the memorial here.
Their comments seemed an attempt to recapture — if only briefly — the unity that prevailed in the country after the terrorist attacks 10 years ago, which killed nearly 2,700 people at the World Trade Center in New York, 184 people at the Pentagon and the 40 people who were aboard Flight 93 when it plunged into a field here.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who also spoke, echoed their sentiments. He acknowledged Mr. Bush as “the man responsible for bringing our country together at a time when it could have been torn apart, for making it clear that America could not be brought to her knees.” He said that Mr. Bush’s leadership “helped us find our way, and for that you deserve our gratitude for a long, long time.”
But the heart of this nearly three-hour ceremony was honoring the response of the passengers and crew on United Flight 93 as they were hijacked. When they realized from phone calls that a broader attack against the United States was under way, they voted to rebel against their captors and tried to seize control of the plane.
They understood that doing so would be likely to cause the plane to crash, but the alternative was to allow the terrorists to continue to Washington, just 20 minutes by air from Shanksville, on what appeared to be a suicide mission aimed at the Capitol building.
The ceremony here drew thousands of people, so many that the National Park Service, which owns the 2,200-acre site that includes the memorial, had to turn people away.
As the sun broke through heavy clouds on Saturday afternoon, bells in front of the crash site tolled 40 times as the name of each passenger and member of the crew was read. A soft white cloth was peeled away to reveal the new memorial: 40 polished marble panels etched with each name.
“Of course we saw 9/11 on the TV,” said Geraldine Lattanzi, 78, of Ambler, Pa., who drove across the state with her daughter to attend the ceremony. “But until you see it, and all these names, you don’t know how sad it really is.”
Again and again, the speakers called the actions of the 40 passengers and crew extraordinary, astonishing and heroic. Mr. Clinton drew an analogy between them and the Spartans in ancient Greece as well as to the Texans at the Alamo; the difference, he said, is that the Spartans and Texans who opted for certain death were soldiers, while those on Flight 93 “just happened to be on a plane.”
Mr. Clinton said: “With almost no time to decide, they gave the entire country an incalculable gift. They saved the Capitol from attack, they saved God knows how many lives, and they spared the terrorists from claiming the symbolic victory of smashing the center of American government.”
The ceremony was held one day ahead of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, bringing considerable attention to this remote spot in southwestern Pennsylvania before the world’s gaze fixes Sunday on New York. A second ceremony will be held here on Sunday, when President Obama is scheduled to visit. He is also attending events at ground zero and the Pentagon.
The opening of the memorial here offered the public its closest glimpse of the crash site since it was closed on 9/11. The actual site, accessible only to family members, was once a smoldering crater filled with debris; it is blanketed now by wildflowers at the edge of a forest of hemlocks and maples. A 17-ton boulder marks the point of impact. Family members are holding a private funeral service there on Monday to bury three coffins containing some human remains at what has become a cemetery.