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Memorial to Flight 93 victims galvanizes Somerset officials

| Thursday, Jan. 17, 2002

Life became a hectic ride for Carl Brown at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1.

Brown, a retired state trooper in his seventh year as Somerset County sheriff, used to command 11 deputies from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Beginning this month, his staff swelled to 23 deputies who began working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, patrolling the site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville on Sept. 11.

There were hints of change to come in the hectic days after Flight 93 went down, killing 44 people.

The nation's need to recognize the passengers' heroic fight against four hijackers to avoid hitting a suspected high-profile target in Washington, D.C., became more apparent with each passing day, as lines of cars snaked up country roads toward the crash site.

But it wasn't until last month that county commissioners called Brown and told him his force would be responsible for security there every day for the next two years.

The sightseers and United's decision to pull its private security detail from the site at the end of the year dictated that something be done.

U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha of Johnstown pushed a $1 million federal appropriation through Congress late last year. The money ensured that Somerset officials would be able to pay the sheriff's costs for the new security detail.

Confident that their security concerns were under control, the county commissioners on Wednesday hired Somerset County public relations consultant Susan Hankinson to deal with what Chairman James Marker labeled their next concern - keeping up with the constant barrage of calls and mail about plans for a memorial to the heroes of Flight 93.

Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said it slowly began to dawn on the board that its responsibilities, rather than diminishing in the aftermath of the crash cleanup, would continue to grow as plans for a memorial proceeded.

To date, Marker said, the county's memorial fund contains $141,668. Businesses and foundations have pledged another $400,000 to $600,000.

Marker said the three commissioners, who share a secretary, were inundated with calls and mail about Flight 93. Some callers wanted to contribute to the memorial fund; others had suggestions, even sketches, to pitch for a permanent memorial.

Just answering the calls could take several hours a day, Marker said.

Marker said although he and his colleagues communicate well, they faced daily county business demands. There was always a chance that one might forget to apprise the other two of an important call.

Recently, calls about a first anniversary memorial service began streaming into the commissioners' suite. Tokar-Ickes said a variety of groups from near and far have asked to be part of the memorial.

One group, she recalled, planned to hold a car cruise. Others offered varied proposals.

"We had a group that offered to parachute into the crash site carrying the American flag. We had a group of Franciscan friars who want to bring a bell in and ring it 40 times. ... We even had an offer for a 250-piece orchestra," he recalled.

The two commissioners said Hankinson, a public relations consultant for the last decade, seemed like the natural choice when a regional foundation expressed an interest in funding a county office for a Flight 93 coordinator.

The commissioners declined to identify the foundation that stepped forward. But Tokar-Ickes said commissioners are confident they can fund the $27,500-a-year post for at least one year from private sources.

Hankinson stepped forward early as a volunteer, Marker said.

She organized a candlelight memorial service in downtown Somerset the Friday after the crash. She also organized a recognition banquet for first responders last weekend at Seven Springs Mountain Resort near Champion.

Despite her prior work, Hankinson said she was surprised when the commissioners approached her.

"I'm sure I have my work cut out for me," said Hankinson, 49, when contacted at her office. "There are a lot of fragments that need to be accomplished. We want to see that everything done with Flight 93 is done with great dignity.

"We must live up to the inspiration and memory of the heroes on Flight 93. They've been linked to Somerset County and the world in terms of history. We want to make sure in anything we do that we act with the same purpose and direction they did."

Back at the crash site, where the sheriff's detail circles the perimeter to ensure its dignity, Brown still marvels at how quickly local officials were able to rise to the challenges and changes of Sept. 11.

The sheriff said his biggest challenge was finding enough deputies to fill the new detail after the commissioners advised him of his new responsibilities.

"I had a meeting with (commissioners) on Dec. 17 and was told to hire people. I thought, 'Gee, this will never happen,'" Brown recalled.

Fortunately, a new class of trainees was just completing the state's mandatory police training course at the vocational-technical school in Johnstown.

"I hired three or four from there and I've got a lot of local policemen working part time," said Brown.

"I'm still taking applications. It's been keeping me busy."

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