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Shanksville folks preparing for Sept. 11

Friday, August 30, 2002

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At the Summit Diner, where the hotcakes sell like their namesake and the meringue on the pies suggests the surrounding mountains, Nancy Balough is bracing for the unknown.

In the hours after United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in cataracts of flame and smoke on Sept. 11, residents in the amiably rural county that surrounds the village of Shanksville didn't know what to expect next.

Come the anniversary of Flight 93, Balough's diner, a community fixture just off the turnpike, could be overrun. As could the county's nearly 2,000 motel rooms. As could the rest of Somerset.

"To tell you the truth, I honestly don't know," said Balough.

As Somerset gets ready to host an elaborate memorial service still in the planning stages, hotel rooms are filling, some restaurants are canceling vacations and organizers are waiting to see if their predictions of a turnout approaching 20,000 becomes a reality.

"That's a lot of people," said Kathy Liebler, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike who added that officials might rearrange the toll booth flow to allow a larger number of exit booths as any influx arrives.

As of yesterday, rooms remained available in Somerset. chamber of commerce Executive Director Hank Parke estimated 300 rooms remain available.

But in places as far away as Johnstown, 20 miles to the north, the "No Vacancy" signs are in the air.

"We aren't quite booked up yet, but I believe we'll fill up at least for the 10th and the 11th," said Sam Phillips, general manager of the Holiday Inn, the largest hotel in that town.

A community memorial concert at the Somerset Alliance Church is already sold out. A second concert, by the Pittsburgh Symphony, is expected to become a heavy draw.

President Bush, and possibly other administration officials, are tentatively scheduled to put in an appearance at the main memorial service, on a windswept former strip mine outside the tiny community of Shanksville.

Details of the ceremony remain unknown as organizers wait for a go-ahead from families of the 40 passengers and crew who died while apparently fighting to regain control of the plane from the hijackers.

If the expected crowds converge on the site, it will mark the third time in a year that Somerset has been overrun with media and the focus of the nation. Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, emergency workers, journalists, investigators and television broadcasters descended on the area as the story slowly emerged of how passengers fought back against the hijackers to prevent their plane from being the fourth deliberately crashed into a building.

In July, the world again fixed on Somerset as rescue crews battled earth and time to save nine miners trapped in a deep coal mine beneath the town of Quecreek.

Currently, workers are struggling to accommodate TV networks that will want to broadcast the services live. Shanksville has no facilities for major media.

"There's no infrastructure there," said Commissioner Pamela Tokar Ickes. "Our problem is because of the logistical issues. That's our biggest challenge right now."

Parking will also be at a premium. Organizers plan to set up a large parking area with shuttle buses to transport people to the service site. Parking will not be permitted in Shanksville.

Pickup spots will be set up throughout the area. Full details will be posted sometime next week on the Flight 93 memorial Web site: www.flt93memorial.org.

While many of the estimated 20,000 or more expected for the service are likely to come from Western Pennsylvania, those planning to book a room should heed one last piece of advice from Parke at the Chamber of Commerce:

"If they're deciding to attend at the last minute, maybe their best bet is to watch it on TV."

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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