ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — As the pageant honored the victims of the 9/11 attacks a dozen years earlier, Miss America contestants from Oklahoma and Minnesota won the second night of preliminary competitions in the pageant on Wednesday.
Miss Oklahoma Kelsey Griswold won a $1,000 scholarship for the swimsuit competition.
"It's been very hard work," she told reporters afterward. "This is not natural by any means. I was in the gym every single day for several hours a day."
Miss Minnesota Rebecca Yeh won a $2,000 scholarship for the talent competition for a classical violin performance. She said she began playing as a child because her brother also did, and she wanted to surpass him.
"It's been a huge way for me to give back to other people," Yeh said. "I love sharing with other people whenever I can."
The two joined contestants from Mississippi and New Hampshire who won preliminary contests Tuesday night.
One more night of preliminaries is scheduled for Thursday.
The show began with a solemn tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Hours before the first preliminary competition of the 2001 Miss America pageant was to take place, the attacks took place.
"No one knew what to do," said Sam Haskell, CEO of the Miss America Organization. "Should we cancel? There was no book to follow."
The contestants all joined hands, cried and prayed for guidance before deciding to go on with the show. Haskell said they felt the Miss America pageant epitomized the values that make America great.
"They'd be damned if they let a vicious enemy keep them from celebrating those values," Haskell said at the start of Wednesday's preliminary competition. "Those girls stood up. And they are still standing."
Following a moment of silence for the nearly 3,000 victims of the attacks, Wednesday's program began with the Spotlight Performers Show Choir from the Greater Ocean City Theatre Company performing "God Bless the USA." The audience rose to its feet and cheered as the song reached its chorus and the lead singer proclaimed, "I'm proud to be an American!"
Then the program got down to business, with the 53 contestants — one from each state plus the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico — striding into Boardwalk Hall to pumping pop music.
Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, began the talent portion of the competition by singing an operatic piece from Puccini. She has been the hot pageant topic of the last 24 hours after baring tattoos including the serenity prayer during her swimsuit competition Tuesday night. A smaller tattoo on her back was visible as she walked offstage in a white strapless evening gown.
Tuesday night, Miss New Hampshire Samantha Russo won the talent competition by singing a Barbra Streisand song from the musical "Funny Girl." And Miss Mississippi Chelsea Rick won the swimsuit competition.
The new Miss America will be crowned Sunday night in a nationally televised finale.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC