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(Enlarge) Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld lays a wreath at the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa.

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid respects March 27 to the 40 passengers and crew members killed here when they struggled against terrorist hijackers and crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. He declared their heroic effort a turning point in the war on terror.

"This is where America really started to fight back," Rumsfeld said of the passengers and crew members of United Airlines Flight 93, who attempted to reclaim their hijacked Boeing 757 before it could strike Washington, D.C.

"It's where a group of seemingly ordinary airline passengers gave their lives in extraordinary defense (from) foreign hijackers and in defense of our country's capital," the secretary told students at the Army War College, at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., later in the day.

Rumsfeld described the Shanksville site by comparing it to how the fields of Gettysburg may have looked to the Union cavalry. "Empty, ordinary at a first glance, not a place one would expect to find heroism particularly or even history," he said.

And appropriately so, he said. "The passengers on Flight 93 did not think of themselves as heroes or history makers when they boarded that plane on a Tuesday morning en route to San Francisco," Rumsfeld told the Army War College audience.

"And undoubtedly (they) never heard of a place called Shanksville or a man named Mohammed Atta," he said. "And they never expected to be saying into their telephones and airphones that the plane's been hijacked or calling to say goodbye or the final comment, 'Let's roll.' "

But that all changed as the events of Sept. 11 unfolded. "On that day, the terrorists brought their fight to our shores and to our people," Rumsfeld said. "And at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, over that quiet field, Americans began to fight back."

The secretary today paid tribute to the heroes who began that fight, laying a wreath and pausing for reflection at the crash site. He also visited a temporary memorial to the victims, leaving his official secretary of defense coin alongside other tokens of remembrance left by the 150,000 who visit each year.

"This is a battlefield," Joanna Hanley from the National Park Service, superintendent of the Flight 92 memorial, told Rumsfeld as she led him through the area.

She described plans for a permanent memorial to be built at the crash site so future generations will remember its significance. The memorial will include a visitor center, wetlands and 40 memorial groves, all leading toward what Hanley described as the "sacred ground" of the crash site. The $57 million project, which will include $30 million in private funding, is expected to begin in 2008 and to open in 2011, she said. Some $7.5 million in private funding has already been raised.

While focusing on Flight 93, the memorial will also tell the stories of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Hanley said, "because you can't understand Flight 93 without the rest of the story."

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