SHANKSVILLE, Pa. (Sept. 10, 2012) -- On the eve of the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta toured the Flight 93 National Memorial here and called the passengers and crew of the ill-fated plane American heroes.

The plane, which took off from Newark, N.J. destined for San Francisco, crashed after passengers and crew members, aware of the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, overpowered hijackers to prevent them from reaching their target. The 9/11 Commission said the terrorists most likely wanted to crash the plane into the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

"[They] responded with selflessness, determination and tremendous courage. And at the cost of their own lives, they made the fateful decision to fight back," Panetta told reporters while touring the memorial, laying a wreath to honor the victims and speaking with relatives of those who perished on that day 11 years ago. "Their example continues to inspire and to strengthen our nation."

Since 9/11, Panetta said, millions of young men and women have been inspired by their sacrifice to step forward and serve the United States.

"And like the heroes of Flight 93, they put their lives on the line for our country," he added. "For more than a decade, they have fought to ensure that such an attack would never happen again."

Panetta said the visit was an opportunity to renew the nation's pledge to the victims of 9/11, their families and to all Americans to "remain forever vigilant against threats to our homeland."

The nation has accomplished many things since the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, he said. "We have brought [Osama] bin Laden to justice, we've decimated the leadership of al-Qaida, [and] we have seriously undermined their ability to plan and conduct an attack similar to 9/11.

"Our troops are still fighting to deny safe haven to al-Qaida and to their extremist allies in Afghanistan," he continued. "We are continuing to fight them in Yemen, in Somalia and in North Africa. Make no mistake -- we will pursue and we will fight them wherever they go. There is no place that will be safe for them to hide from justice."

The United States is stronger and safer as a result of the sacrifices in Shanksville, he said, and as a result of the "tremendous sacrifice of those who have served this nation over these last 10 years."

"As I've often said, one of the toughest jobs I have is to write notes to the families of those who have been lost in battle," he said. "With each note, I express the tremendous sorrow that we all have for their loss, but I also say that they gave their lives for all they loved.

"They gave their lives for the families they loved and for the country they loved, and there is no greater sacrifice than to do that," Panetta continued. "That's what these heroes did here. As a result, they are forever American heroes. This is hallowed ground. This is hallowed ground because this is the final resting place of American patriots."