Commissioning of USS Somerset honors United Airlines Flight 93 heroes
Blue-gray water quietly lapped the shore of the Delaware River in Philadelphia on Saturday as 80 Marines and Navy sailors awaited the order.
“Officers and crew of the USS Somerset, man this ship and bring her to life!” ship sponsor Mary Jo Myers called out as she stood before the new San Antonio-class amphibious Navy ship at Penn's Landing.
With that, the Marines and sailors jogged up the gangplank and became the first crew of the vessel named in honor of the 40 passengers and crew members killed aboard United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed near Shanksville, Somerset County, on Sept. 11, 2001.
The 5,000 people in attendance roared their approval and applauded as the USS Somerset, a $1.2 billion humanitarian and war ship, was formally commissioned, marking its entry into the naval fleet.
Once its crew manned the ship, the Somerset's commanding officer, Capt. Thomas L. Dearborn, said, “Somerset, let's roll!” paying homage to Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer's famous rallying cry.
“Today is much more than a celebration of the rivets and steel we see behind us. Today transcends that structure and embraces this magnificent ship and the spirit it will carry with it,” said Myers.
The crowd applauded when she asked the family members of Flight 93 victims to stand.
“Today we come together as families — and mostly as Americans — to celebrate and witness this momentous occasion, and wish the USS Somerset and her crew Godspeed,” said Myers, wife of retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
About 300 Flight 93 family members, many wearing photo buttons honoring lost loved ones, joined sailors and Marines, National Park Service employees and elected officials in bearing witness to history. Nearly 1,200 Somerset County residents were in attendance, some traveling on chartered buses.
The crew of 400 lined the ship railings draped with red, white and blue bunting as Gordon Felt, the brother of passenger Edward Felt and president of Families of Flight 93, spoke of the ship's place in history.
“It's hard to comprehend the long course of events that brought us here today,” he said. “We have heard countless reports of heroics inspired by our loved ones' actions. ... Today we join together to witness yet another marker in the Flight 93 story.
“You will forever share a bond with our loved ones and Somerset County, where so much was given and lost,” Felt told the crew. “The passengers and crew of Flight 93 did not set out on the morning of Sept. 11 to be heroes. ... It could have been any one of us faced with the unspeakable horror our loved ones faced. Please let their actions sustain you and motivate you.”
The event's keynote speaker was Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps.
“It's been said already that your loved ones faced terrorism, they took a stand and refused to back down. We will never know how many lives may have been saved that Tuesday. But what we do know is this — they will never be forgotten,” he said.
“The naming of any warship is a thoughtful and deliberate affair. I'm particularly pleased that our secretary of the Navy, the honorable Ray Mabus, decided to name this ship in honor of the sacrifice of the brave crew and passengers aboard Flight 93. ... As the ship sails the world's oceans, she will carry the spirit, the determination and the fighting spirit that has always defined America,” Amos said.
Carole O'Hare, Families of Flight 93 secretary, said her mother, passenger Hilda Marcin, worked as a bookkeeper at Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. in Kearny, N.J., during World War II.
“I remember her telling me she would sit and watch ships getting christened. She would tell me the feeling she would get, how proud everyone was,” O'Hare said. “I would think she would be totally awed by (this).”
The tributes to the passengers and crew “are beyond anything I could have expected,” she said.
Hamilton Peterson of Bethesda, Md., whose father, Donald Peterson, and stepmother, Jean Hoadley Peterson, were aboard Flight 93, toured the ship on Friday with his sons Peyton, 13, and Campbell, 18.
He said he was pleased to see a Shanksville fire department patch on a fire hose in the chapel, and photos and biographies of the passengers and crew lining the walls.
“I know how much my father admired the military,” said Peterson, whose family built motors for Navy ships. “For him to have been part of this wonderful new protector of the U.S. and the free world is an honor.”
“It's more than appropriate that the ship was named after Somerset County. It's a reflection of the way the county rose up to support the nation and the families the way that they did,” Campbell Peterson said.
Carol Heiderich of Hollister, Calif., the sister of Flight 93 Capt. Jason Dahl, lauded the ship as “a lovely memorial.”
Her brother was among a group of student pilots who flew humanitarian missions while he was a student at San Jose State University, she said.
“I'm kind of in awe every time I go to Shanksville. The people of Somerset County are so wonderful. We are so appreciative of all of their efforts, and of the National Park Service, for the families,” Heiderich said. “It's a wonderful tribute ... to both the victims and to the county that still continues to care for everyone who comes there.”
Deborah Borza, the mother of Flight 93's youngest passenger, Deora Bodley, 20, said she appreciates the ship's humanitarian capabilities.
“It's something Deora would have loved. These kids (the crew) are Deora's age. I think that's the world they swim in — bringing the world together,” said Borza of Annapolis.
Kathy Ross of Central City, about five miles from the Flight 93 crash site, and five family members drove to Philadelphia for the ceremony.
“The Flight 93 National Memorial is the place we always take visiting relatives,” she said.
“We are a part of this. We've lived it. This (commissioning) makes a full circle. We wanted to show our respect and support. We share their loss. ... They are our family, too,” Ross said.
The USS Somerset is the third of three ships named to honor the victims of and first responders to the terrorist attacks on Flight 93, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The ship will leave Philadelphia on Tuesday and sail to its home port in San Diego for preparations to deploy in 2016.
Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.