Inspired by his love for his late brother, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 and his country, Gordon Felt delivered a masterpiece on Wednesday, calling on Americans 18 years after 9/11 to live the way those heroes died – working together for a common cause.
"They were private citizens" who "helped to change the course of world history," Felt said.
Edward Felt was among the 40 innocents who perished when United Flight 93 crashed into a Somerset County field on Sept. 11, 2001.
The passengers and crew on that hijacked plane had learned of the fate of three other jets that had been flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In calls to colleagues and loved ones, they revealed that they had developed a plan to charge the cockpit and confront their hijackers.
Doing so brought Flight 93 down 20 minutes short of the terrorists' intended target – likely the U.S. Capitol. The passengers and crew died saving hundreds – maybe thousands – of others.
Gordon Felt called their actions "heroism revealed in a time of crisis."
He added: "Imagine the implications in our country's response to the attacks of Sept. 11, if we had witnessed the destruction of our Capitol building, and how much more our lives would have been changed from that day forward."
Now nearly two decades later, he said, "That scenario is becoming more normalized, and the world is becoming more dangerous."
'Fight to survive'
U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, next at the lectern, called Felt's delivery one of the most eloquent speeches he had ever heard.
Felt is president of the Families of Flight 93, and speaks annually at Shanksville 9/11 anniversary gatherings.
He pointed to three driving principles he sees in the relationships of the passengers and crew of Flight 93:
• "Strength through diversity.": They were a variety of races, religions, political backgrounds, sexual preferences, different ages, yet they acted together, he said.
• "Commitment to Democratic principles": "Our loved ones sought strength through their collective actions."
• "A willingness to make the tough decisions and do what's right, not what's easy."
Felt said: "We would do well in incorporating those values into our daily lives."
Flight 93 took off from Newark, New Jersey, and was headed for San Francisco. Near Cleveland, the hijackers brought the plane back east into Pennsylvania, then turned south toward Washington.
The passengers, Felt said, were faced with two choices: "Surrender under pressure or fight to survive."
He said: "They stood up and said, 'No. We're coming for you.' "
'Speak the truth'
Standing by the Wall of Names after Wednesday's ceremony, Felt said he organized his thoughts for the speech while walking the woods of his beloved Adirondack Mountains, where Gordy and Edward Felt hiked and camped in the years before the terrorist attacks took the older brother's life.
The Felt brothers grew up on the edge of Adirondack Park in upstate New York. They camped there as kids, and Gordon returns to that area for vacations with his family.
He finds a peaceful place where he can hike and think, "away from cellphones and away from TV" – where thoughts become words, and words become orations.
Felt said when planning his speeches, he begins with two recurring themes: Heroism and unity.
"This is very personal to me," he said. "I always want to speak from the heart and speak the truth."
He said: "It has always been such a blessing to represent the family organization, but also to speak on behalf of our loved ones. I'll keep being that voice as long as the good Lord lets me."
Felt also finds motivation in young people whose only connection with 9/11 is what they learn in the classroom or from those who experienced the moment.
He spoke Tuesday to 600 students at Conemaugh Township High School in Davidsville, about 20 minutes from Shanksville.
Felt said he asked the room who was born before Sept. 11, 2001. Only three hands went up.
He said the students "were engaged" on the topic of 9/11 – listening attentively as he spoke, then staying to ask him numerous questions afterward.
"Once our generation is gone, there won't be anyone with a first-hand account of what happened that day," Felt said.
He urged the students at Conemaugh Township – and the audience members a day later at Shanksville – to "be extraordinary," following the example of the Flight 93 heroes.
"It could have been any one of us," he said during his speech. "Any one of us could have been on board Flight 93 that morning."
After the 9/11 anniversary ceremony, Felt called the responsibility of speaking at such gatherings "very personal," and yet requiring a message that can resonate broadly and reach across ages and experiences.
"We can talk about our loved ones," he said. "They were people. This was all real. But what they did was extraordinary, and surreal."