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Flight 93 crash site touted as memorial to victims

Thursday, September 20, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

STONYCREEK, Pa. -- Until last week, it was a few remote acres that, like a lot of this part of Somerset County, had been farmed, strip-mined, back-filled and planted over with grass.

Then, nine days ago, in the final nightmarish episode of America's morning of horror, United Flight 93 crashed nose-first into that stretch of ground, killing all 44 people aboard.

With that, state police Maj. Lyle Szupinka said two days later, the land became "a temple burial ground for these victims."

That could be more than talk.

The landowners, a pair of coal companies, said yesterday that they are inclined to donate the ground to become a permanent memorial to the passengers and crew of the Boeing 757.

"If we have a say about it, there's no problem with it," John Weir, land manager with PBS Coals Inc., said yesterday.

"I'd be willing to cooperate in whatever way I could," said Michael Svonavec, secretary-treasurer of the local coal company Svonavec Inc. "It's a site of national interest -- certainly, the way I see it, where we as Americans fought back against terrorism."

Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker yesterday called a memorial "the least we can do."

Talk has yet to progress much beyond the expression of good intentions. Indeed, when county commissioners came Monday to the crash site, bearing a bronze plaque with the victims' names, they conceded that they didn't know if there would be a memorial there at which to place the marker.

Precisely which parts of the site PBS Coals and Svonavec own has yet to be determined. It is hidden from nearby roads, and officials from the companies have not been allowed to examine the well-guarded site.

For now the land is a crime scene, marked by a 40-foot crater and tarp-covered piles of earth. The FBI is overseeing the search for human remains and airplane fragments, a painstaking hunt-and-dig process that could continue for more than a month.

"There should be something put there, a marker for all these people," said Yanira Viera of Puerto Rico, whose cousin, New York regional Census Bureau employee Waleska Martinez, died in the crash.

Support also came from retiree Vernon Spangler of Harrisburg, a former Somerset County commissioner, state director of local government services for seven years under Gov. Dick Thornburgh and the farmer who used to own the ground.

Finding that the jetliner crashed on his former homestead was "traumatic," he said as he visited the site yesterday."But a memorial -- definitely, definitely, there has to be one," he said.

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