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Tributes left by children featured in monthlong Flight 93 center exhibit

Mary Pickels
| Thursday, March 3, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Flight 93 National Memorial Superintendent Stephen M. Clark (left), pauses a moment as he addresses media during the opening of 'Through Their Eyes' located in the Learning Center at the Flight 93 National Memorial on Thursday, Mar. 3, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Flight 93 National Memorial Superintendent Stephen M. Clark (left), pauses a moment as he addresses media during the opening of 'Through Their Eyes' located in the Learning Center at the Flight 93 National Memorial on Thursday, Mar. 3, 2016.
A piece on display at 'Through Their Eyes' installed at the recently opened Learning Center at the Flight 93 National Memorial on Thursday, Mar. 3, 2016. This exhibit includes children's images, words, and objects left at the Flight 93 National Memorial as tributes from 2001 to 2016.  Visitors to the exhibit will be able to view never before seen tributes left by children who visited the Memorial.  The exhibit will open on Saturday, Mar. 5, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
A piece on display at 'Through Their Eyes' installed at the recently opened Learning Center at the Flight 93 National Memorial on Thursday, Mar. 3, 2016. This exhibit includes children's images, words, and objects left at the Flight 93 National Memorial as tributes from 2001 to 2016. Visitors to the exhibit will be able to view never before seen tributes left by children who visited the Memorial. The exhibit will open on Saturday, Mar. 5, 2016.
Flight 93 National Memorial Chief of Cultural Resources Barbara Black, pauses a moment as she addresses media during the opening of 'Through Their Eyes' located in the Learning Center at the Flight 93 National Memorial on Thursday, Mar. 3, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Flight 93 National Memorial Chief of Cultural Resources Barbara Black, pauses a moment as she addresses media during the opening of 'Through Their Eyes' located in the Learning Center at the Flight 93 National Memorial on Thursday, Mar. 3, 2016.

Their heartfelt words and colorful drawings are insightful and compassionate, considering the writers and artists were children.

“Thank you for my future,” one wrote.

“Thank you for helping me understand why my brother serves,” wrote another.

The notes and pictures, along with toys and stuffed animals, were left at the Flight 93 National Memorial and are part of a temporary exhibit opening Saturday.

“Through Their Eyes” will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in March. The exhibit is the first at the Somerset County site's new Learning Center.

The park tells the story of United Airlines Flight 93's 40 passengers and crew, some of whom fought with terrorist hijackers for control of the plane before it plummeted to the ground near Shanksville.

They are credited with preventing the plane from striking a target in Washington, D.C.

Barbara Black, retiring chief of cultural resources, selected some 50 items for the exhibit, what she called her “last hurrah.”

“Why did I choose this for an exhibit? Children through their early teens understand and explore their world in different ways than adults do. Children want to know there are helpers. They are also empathetic and compassionate,” Black said during a media tour on Thursday.

She recalled struggling with questions from her grandchildren shortly after 9/11.

She watched as child after child stooped at the site to leave a note, a toy or a flower at the temporary memorial, and later the permanent memorials.

Black began to collect and preserve visitors' tributes in 2001, when she was employed with the Somerset Historical Center. She has worked for the National Park Service since 2004.

“I knew we had more than enough to build an exhibit,” she said.

One side of a glass case is dedicated to emotion, from sadness to happiness, the exhibits punctuated with rainbows, hearts and tears.

The other side shows how children acknowledged heroes and helpers, from first responders to the passengers and crew.

They left airplanes made from Legos, fire trucks, toy soldiers and police officer figures.

“Dear Shanksville Firemen, my cousin Bill Walker is a fireman. Thank you for what you do for us at the crash scene. It was hard to do work at school this week, too,” read an early note from a young Shanksville resident, Michael Sulkowski.

The third case includes poems and drawings from older children, who reflect on their futures.

“The hard part was narrowing it down and not duplicating too much,” Black said.

Video screens offer another opportunity for visitors to see the site evolve from little more than a crater to a Wall of Names and a visitors and learning center.

The site chief of interpretation, MaryJane Hartman, said the park's popular Discovery Table will be available to visitors.

She and Ranger Adam Shaffer started the hands-on activity for children in 2012. Rangers soon found the table and its contents — from molds of paw prints and feathers from native animals to first-responder hats — encouraged adults as much as children to linger and ask questions.

Dr. Mary Margaret Kerr is part of a University of Pittsburgh Flight 93 Research Team studying items children leave at the site.

Recurring themes, such as toys, messages and flags, show children's empathy, hope and patriotism, according to the team.

“The tributes give us clues for planning exhibits and activities for younger visitors,” Kerr said in a statement.

The Learning Center and its technology will be used for training, conferences, class field trips and distance learning.

There is no fee to tour the display. Children must be accompanied by an adult.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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