Flight 93 memorial visitor center groundbreaking marks eve of Sept. 11 remembrances
An arduous, decade-long journey to build a lasting memorial to the 40 men and women who died aboard United Airlines Flight 93 entered its closing chapter on Tuesday as ground was broken for a 6,800-square-foot visitor center near the crash site.
As six shovels turned grassy earth where the center will stand, the 100 federal officials, victims' family members and friends on hand knew the occasion was symbolic of much more than the bricks and mortar from which the center will be built.
One day before the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attack on America that left about 3,000 people dead at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a grassy field near Shanksville, Somerset County, National Park Superintendent Jeff Reinbold told a crowd gathered for the groundbreaking that “you can still imagine being here on Sept. 11, 2001, as Flight 93 roared overhead in its final moments.”
For Reinbold and others involved in the memorial, Tuesday meant the turning of a final page of a project that, unlike its counterparts in New York and at the Pentagon, was often hamstrung by sluggish fundraising, land disputes and other issues far from the control of those pushing to replace a raw, makeshift memorial that stood at the crash site for many years with a permanent national monument.
It took several planning groups, lobbying by Pennsylvania's top officials and more than 110,000 donors to raise the $40 million in private funding needed for the memorial. Officials announced the completion of that fundraising goal on Monday.
The balance was financed by taxpayers: Congress earmarked $10 million for the project, while $18 million came from Pennsylvania. Somerset County contributed $600,000.
Fundraisers in Pennsylvania faced challenges including the memorial's rural location almost two hours from the closest metropolitan area and the fact that few of the victims had any local ties.
“There was no philanthropic model for a fundraising campaign in this set of circumstances,” said Patrick White, vice president of Families of Flight 93 and cousin of passenger Louis J. Nacke II. “This was all created here from our own set of experiences.”
Many of those who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., lived and worked there. The passengers and crew aboard Flight 93 lived all over the country.
“Sometimes, when we went out, you'd be surprised how everyone knew about the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington at the Pentagon, but a lot didn't even know about Pennsylvania,” said Calvin Edward Wilson, brother-in-law of co-pilot Leroy Homer. “Part of our job was teaching people about the 40 heroes and what they accomplished in just 22 minutes.”
Wilson, of Herndon, Va., said fundraisers tried to overcome those hurdles by bringing a family member along when asking groups for money. Raising money proved easier in New York, the nation's corporate and banking center, where most of the roughly 3,000 victims were killed, and in the Washington area, home to the federal government and defense industry.
Flight 93's lack of a complete memorial design until late 2005 was a hindrance. Designs were in place for the Pentagon and New York memorials by 2003 and 2004.
“People go to New York City and Washington, D.C., and might make the memorials part of their trips there just because there's so much to do,” said Ken Nacke of Baltimore, brother of Louis Nacke. “I'm not taking anything away from either one of those memorials, but here it's more of a pilgrimage when you come to Shanksville in Somerset County.”
Visitation has grown steadily as the Flight 93 site changed from a temporary memorial to a permanent Memorial Plaza, a Wall of Names and 40 memorial groves.
About 456,000 people visited the memorial from its dedication on Sept. 10, 2011, through the end of 2012, according to the National Park Service. Bus groups jumped 70 percent in 2012, with 1,250 buses visiting the memorial.
Fundraising wasn't the only obstacle for the National Park Service, the National Park Foundation, the Families of Flight 93 and the Flight 93 Memorial Task Force, all of which worked to bring the memorial to fruition.
For years, memorial plans were bogged down by stalled negotiations to acquire about 2,200 acres for the memorial site.
“We had unprecedented, unanticipated and what at times seemed insurmountable challenges,” White said.
Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made trips to Somerset County to facilitate an agreement in 2009 for the federal government to pay $9.5 million to eight landowners for about 1,400 acres.
The final land dispute wasn't settled until October, when U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose said Svonavec Inc. of Somerset failed to prove it had mining rights under the memorial site when the federal government took the land in 2009 through eminent domain.
Svonavec, a coal and quarry company, owned about 275 acres of land, including six acres where Flight 93 crashed.
But on Tuesday, as the visitor center moved again toward reality, officials stepped back from the controversies and the roadblocks to remember the reason they began the journey so many years ago.
“We want to remember the 40 who gave their lives as heroes of the country and make sure the lessons we learned from them about taking control of a very difficult situation and making a choice that kept that plane from striking the Capitol are lessons that children can learn in the future,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “Hopefully, the story that is told here will make the world a better place.”
Lladel Lichty, president of Friends of Flight 93, said her organization will continue the legacy of citizen involvement at the memorial.
“The programming provided here will be vibrant and engaging now and for future generations,” Lichty said.
In the coming months, 450 feet of curving walls for the visitor center will rise from the ground, starting at 15 feet high and reaching nearly 40 feet, Reinbold said.
“These portal walls will be broken in one place: along the final flight path of Flight 93, dramatically framing views down to the crash site and to the skies above,” Reinbold said.
Kari Andren, Mary Pickels and Paul Peirce are staff writers for Trib Total Media.