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U.S. News
Flight 93 tribute items are removed for safekeeping

Sunday, March 02, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

SOMERSET, Pa. -- Maybe history's local custodians will never know the significance of the harmonica that somebody deposited as a tribute at the provisional memorial to United Flight 93's victims.

 
 
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It's a fair wager that they'll never explain for sure why someone chose to leave a still-packaged pair of baby booties or why another visitor left a compact disc of Scottish pipe music.

Roxanne Sullivan, a steward of the little memorial, wove her own posits into a hypothesis about the parachutist toy soldier someone dropped off lately.

"I can see, maybe, a child riding here with his parents, playing with this toy while they rode along," she said. "And when they go to leave the memorial, he wants to leave something, a memento. So, he chooses this toy, because it's something important to him."

Maybe. But historians aren't casting about for explanations to the 6,000-or-so pieces -- from scores of ball caps to a 10-foot-tall wooden cross -- that visitors began depositing two days after Flight 93 pitched into the Somerset County countryside 16 months ago.

For now, Sullivan and others are simply gathering what visitors leave, preserving it and archiving it. With that, they make a largely unedited record of how tens of thousands of people are partaking in a relatively new American rite of public grieving: leaving tokens, often bits of their lives, in grief and tribute.

It is how they mourn the 40 victims of Flight 93. It's how they honor this group lauded as a gutsy bunch who sized up the hijackers and turned on them. It's how they handle anything from rage over an atrocity to fear of vulnerability.

"God bless you," says one line penned onto a 4- by 8-foot plywood sheet mounted at the site, the 35th sheet that visitors have filled with messages. Nearby are more lines, jotted in a child's hand: "Thank you for giving your life."

Some of the pilgrims simply try to ponder it all. Some cry. A few burst into spontaneous hymns.

Only the messages and the mementos left behind survive the moment.

"It's important to preserve what's being left at the site, because, overall, it's a reflection of how America felt about this action," said Barbara Black, curator at the Somerset Historical Center, de facto attic for the Flight 93 memorial.

"It shows us that people really do care about each other," said Pamela West, director of the National Park Service's Museum Resource Center in Landover, Md. "It shows that people care, and they find a comradeship in the wake of tragedy."

Conservators took notice of this turn in public emotion two decades ago, with the opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., where visitors left anything from war medals to messages penned on Popsicle sticks.

From the Vietnam memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing scene to the Sept. 11 crash sites, conservators have been trailing the people paying tribute, trying to safeguard what they leave behind.

"What's unusual about the scene in Pennsylvania is that nobody on the ground there knew anybody on the plane," West said. "It probably shows that there's no local news anymore, that anything that happens like this is global."

For now, this spot to which the pilgrims are drawn is little more than a flat spot on a hillside, sweeping down to the off-limits land where the Boeing 757 crashed. The little memorial is a pair of temporary flagpoles and a 35-foot stretch of 10-foot-tall chain link fence, the repository to which all comers can fix their tributes.

Among those tributes is a police officer's badge, left by an anonymous Indiana Borough patrolman and the identification tag from a state trooper in Kittanning. There are rosary beads and a child's drawing, in marker, of the crucifixion. One ball cap bears the legend "Purple Heart, Combat Wounded," another the logo of Hagerstown, Md., Engine Co. 2, another the name of a Maximo, Ohio, greenhouse.

A sailor left his cap, a notation penned on the brim, "Proudly defending the freedom you helped preserve."

There is a compact disc of an Alaskan folk singer's post-Sept. 11 exhortation for the nation to feel its oats. An anonymous vocalist left a living-room-quality home recording of "Wind Beneath My Wings."

One postal worker dropped off his powder-blue uniform shirt, an American flag sewn to the right sleeve.

"I had this flag sewn on my pocket on 9/11," he wrote in an unsigned note slipped into the pocket. "I was told not to wear it because it was not part of the uniform and it was unprofessional. I wore it anyway."

And there is a flag, one of scores and scores of flags.

This one, wrapped snugly in plastic, is from retiree Cora Bonus, the flag that covered older brother Fred Madison's casket. Madison was a newly minted American GI, 18 years old, when he was killed in Germany, his Army Jeep hit by a truck a year after World War II ended.

For the better part of six decades, Bonus' family safeguarded the flag.

Last Flag Day, Bonus, newly moved to Somerset County from Lackawanna, N.Y., added it to the tributes to Flight 93.

"My brother gave his life for his country. The people on that plane gave their lives for their country," she said. "This is a good place for it."

For now, that place is Somerset Historical Center, 11 miles from the memorial.

Elizabeth Haupt, who died in 1991, was the benefactor who bequeathed the land that's now the historical center. It's in her one-story house, up behind a pair of swinging iron gates, that the Flight 93 collection has spilled from her former two-car garage, to overrun her living room.

There are hand-held flags and bows filling cartons big enough to pack hefty, tabletop televisions. There are everything from religious medallions to handwritten sheets of original poetry, tucked into plastic packets, filed away in acid-free boxes.

In another three to five years, when a mix of private and public funds is expected to transform the Flight 93 site to a permanent memorial, Black plans to turn all this over to the National Park Service.

In the meantime, Sullivan, a neighbor to the crash site and one of the army of volunteers who field visitors' questions there, goes out to check the memorial for mementos ready for the Historical Center's protective shelter. Black and her grandson walk the nearby fields, hunting anything relentless mountaintop winds carried off.

Then, back at the Historical Center, Black, with help from a staffer, three volunteers and a $28,000 federal grant to buy supplies, goes about the job of logging, cleaning, photographing and then storing all but the remains of live flowers and the flags and ribbons that bear no messages.

A year ago, she vowed that her collection would stop short of the pair of portable toilets and the 60 feet of galvanized steel guardrails in the makeshift memorial's gravel parking lot.

Now those guardrails are covered with messages, from Bible verses written in marker to a bumper sticker declaring, "Terrorists are cowards."

"But," Black said, "I still won't take the porta-potties."

In September 2001, in a piece of the world staggered that a world-scale atrocity could crash into its quiet front yard, almost nobody saw all this attention coming.

But even as state troopers ringed a stretch of vacant land the size of a small city and kept it off-limits to all but recovery workers, motorists began trickling by, stopping, popping out of their cars and leaving flowers at the perimeter. Flags went up. So did a cross.

Then, somebody, a United flight attendant from Somerset County, officials later found out, left her airline uniform there on the ground as tribute to her stolen co-workers.

"People would go up to it and just look at it. People were lighting candles around it like a shrine," Black said. "Big, strong, grown men started to cry when they saw it."

The parade of people and mementos almost never stopped.

Summertime brings an estimated 4,000 or more people a week; in winter, as many as 100 a weekend will travel the two-lane roads to the memorial.

Last week, a merciless wind snapped flags to unflinching attention, turning 22 degrees into ear-numbing cold, and still didn't stop the occasional driver from motoring up for a look.

"People seem compelled to come, to have that chance to feel a physical connection to this," Black said. "Many have said they feel peace there, and that they feel something was accomplished there -- a fight back against terrorism."


Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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