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Families of Flight 93 victims gather at Shanksville crash site

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

STONYCREEK, Pa. -- Hamilton Peterson had steeled himself for his first visit to the site where his father and stepmother died a year ago in the crash of United Airlines Flight 93.

Religious medallions and other mementos lie where they were left at the temporary memorial site for the victims of Flight 93. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Yesterday, he was shown where the Newark-to-San-Francisco-bound Boeing 757 corkscrewed into the ground at more than 507 mph. He heard how debris from the impact, including human teeth and bone, were imbedded in nearby trees, and how bodies were reduced to no more than swatches of skin.

But what affected Peterson most were the small signs made by the children of Shanksville that lined roads leading to the crash site.

"I thought I had incredible composure until I took the ride out there," said Peterson, an attorney from Bethesda, Md., who appeared with his wife, Julia, and 6-year-old son, Campbell, at a news conference yesterday afternoon at Somerset County's Hidden Valley Resort.

The Petersons were among 540 family and friends of Flight 93's 40 passengers and crew who visited the crash site as part of ceremonies marking the year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Today, President Bush is expected to meet with all 540 in a special ceremony at the site.

Peterson's father, Donald, 66, and stepmother, Jean, 55, had been on their way to a family reunion at Yosemite National Park.

Richard Guadagno, the 38-year-old manager of Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge in California, had been headed home after celebrating his grandmother's 100th birthday.

Yesterday, his sister, Lori, of Jacksonville, Fla., and 12 other family members visited the crash site, located at the edge of a forest. They all wore photo buttons of Richard over their hearts.

"It was very overwhelming," she said afterward. "A lot, a lot of feelings went through me. It was a place that was so much about my brother."

The family and friends were driven about 20 miles to the site in about a dozen buses early yesterday afternoon from Hidden Valley Resort, where they all are staying free of charge. They spent from one to 2 1/2 hours wandering the site, asking questions of Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller and other officials about the crash itself and the recovery and identification process.

Lori Guadagno walked in the woods alone, seeking solace, she said, by talking with God. Just before she rejoined her parents, she found a bird's nest on the ground.

"This was truly a sign; a complete connection," she said, referring to her brother's love of nature.

Peterson said he spent much of his time speaking with Jack Grandcolas, whose wife, Lauren, 38, was a passenger. She had been four months pregnant with the couple's first child.

For Peterson, the visit reinforced the importance of not forgetting what happened a year ago, of "being ever vigilant" to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring again.

"The message is, this is what it's all about," he said, pointing to his son, who sat on his shoulders throughout the news conference. "While it might not have been [the most important thing for him] before, it is now."

Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.

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