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USS Somerset ceremonies set for March 1

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

March 1 will mark an “exceptionally important event” for Somerset County and for the Families of Flight 93, said its president, Gordon Felt.

Thousands of visitors, Navy officials and crew will participate in a centuries-old Navy tradition and commission the USS Somerset at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia.

“I would expect between 200 and 250 family members will be there,” said Felt, who plans to attend.

An additional several hundred Somerset County residents are expected, Janet Vatavuk said on Tuesday. She and husband John Vatavuk, a county commissioner, are part of a local planning committee.

The USS Somerset is one of three amphibious transport dock ships, including the USS New York and the USS Arlington, named after the places where planes seized by terrorists crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people.

The USS Somerset honors the 40 passengers and crew members aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Stonycreek Township instead of hitting a target in Washington.

“We want to make sure this is very memorable, that it honors the people of Flight 93 and the people of Somerset County,” said Tom Metzger, president of the Philadelphia Council of the Navy League of the United States.

Sailors will arrive about a week in advance to perform community service, he said. Fundraising for commissioning costs, estimated at between $325,000 and $500,000, has begun and donations can be made at www.usssomersetcommissioning.org.

Funds will help finance scheduled events and purchase plaques for the ship's first crew, called plank owners, Metzger said.

Somerset County has set a fundraising goal of $50,000, Janet Vatavuk said.

Bob Kirst, president of Global/SFC Valve Corp., Somerset, has pledged to match local donations up to $10,000, she said. The company built some of the valves on the ship.

Somerset Trust branch offices are collecting donations. Checks made out to Navy League of the United States-Phila. (USS Somerset) may be sent to Somerset Trust Company, P.O. Box 777, Somerset, PA, 15501.

Felt said family members met with ship Capt. Thomas Dearborn and crew members who attended the Sept. 11 commemoration services at the Flight 93 National Memorial.

“We were very much impressed with their passion for the story and the significance of the name of the ship,” he said.

“It's a recognition of the community and of the events that unfolded there and how it impacted not only our families but the community as a whole. We've always been so grateful to Somerset County. They created a home away from home for all of the families,” Felt said.

That the ship will be capable of humanitarian relief efforts, he said, “is particularly appropriate.”

The 384-foot-long USS Somerset will have a crew of about 400. It is designed to launch helicopters, tilt-rotor aircraft and assault watercraft to bring up to 800 troops to shore. The $1.2 billion ship is expected to be based out of San Diego.

County contributions to the ship's construction include steel in its bow from the drag-line bucket of a coal-mining crane close to the crash site. Green and white signs from each Somerset County municipality will hang in the ship's hallways, in place of numbers. Maple from a tree-clearing project along Route 219 is to be milled into flooring for the ship's museum.

In addition, Felt said, ship sponsor Mary Jo Myers is working with family members to piece together a quilt and gather photos of each crew and passenger to mount on the ship's walls.

“It's more than just steel. It's going to be a living reminder and memorial to Somerset County and to the folks who lost their lives there on Sept. 11, 2001,” Felt said.

The Somerset County Chamber of Commerce is planning a bus trip that will leave Somerset on Feb. 28 and return on March 1.

For information, contact the chamber at 814-445-6431.

For invitations, which are required, contact Janet Vatavuk at janetvatavuk@gmail.com or call 814-467-5137. Deadline is Nov. 23.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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