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Flight 93 visitor center 'tells incredible story of heroism' (w/video)

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — Gordon Felt knew his brother was sitting directly in front of two of the terrorists who hijacked United Airlines Flight 93.

But it "never really hit me," Felt said, until he walked through the new, immersive visitor center at the Flight 93 National Memorial. There it was, the seating chart with his sibling's name on it: Edward Felt, first class, second row.

"It kind of came crashing back," said Felt, whose brother took part in a passenger revolt that brought the plane down in a southwestern Pennsylvania field. "Those feelings that were always there — the emotion, the anger, the sense of loss — really are drawn back to the surface."

Sitting on a hill overlooking the crash site near Shanksville, the $26 million visitor center complex will be dedicated and opened to the public today, one day before the annual 9/11 observances in Pennsylvania, New York and Washington. Victims' family members got a private tour Wednesday.

Fourteen years in the making, the center uses photos, video, artifacts and interactive displays to tell the story of Flight 93, the only jetliner among the four commandeered by terrorists that failed to reach its intended target on Sept. 11, 2001. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York and one slammed into the Pentagon outside Washington. More than 3,000 people died.

The center's 10 exhibits are laid out chronologically, with visitors learning how the 33 passengers and seven crew members — at least some of them already aware the nation was under attack — voted to charge the cockpit and then fought to regain control of the plane, whose hijackers are thought to have wanted to crash it into the U.S. Capitol.

"You are seeing an incredible story of heroism, a piece of American history playing out in front of you as you are walking through this exhibit that gives perspective on the day," said Felt, president of Families of Flight 93.

The center's stark, 40-foot exterior concrete walls are split by a black granite walkway that marks the doomed plane's flight path. Visitors are led through the exhibits to an outdoor platform that offers a commanding view of the crash site and surrounding hills.