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Flight 93 memorial advances with gift

Thursday, December 05, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The guardians of United Flight 93's legacy want to protect the patch of Somerset County countryside where the jetliner slammed to earth 15 months ago.

And they want to preserve surrounding ground, a buffer so that nothing -- no monster billboards, trinket peddlers or fluorescent lights of fast-food places -- get close enough to do insult to the land that recovery workers christened "hallowed ground."

All told, that's "in the vicinity of 500 acres" for land preservationists to acquire, Somerset County Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said.

Today, the preservation effort and a plan to raise a permanent memorial there will get a push forward when a neighboring landholder donates the first six acres -- which, to survivors of Flight 93 victims, is some of the most hallowed of the hallowed ground.

It will be step one in acquiring large pieces of ground from more than seven owners -- ground, south of Route 30 near Shanksville, that will be held untouched, awaiting the memorial that could be five years away.

Along with that announcement, a fund-raiser set up to help bankroll the memorial will turn over an estimated $1 million gathered from the yearlong, nationwide sale of nearly 100,000 stainless steel Flight 93 bracelets thought up by state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, and made with donated labor and materials.

"That's huge for us," said Jennifer Price, daughter of Jean Peterson and stepdaughter of Donald Peterson, a Spring Lake, N.J., couple killed in the crash.

The land and money, in turn, may breed more generosity and more enthusiasm, planners hope.

"For all intents and purposes, everybody is committed to see this land transformed to a national memorial," Tokar-Ickes said.

The first six acres will come from Tim Lambert, a Harrisburg public-radio journalist who grew up in Aliquippa but has roots -- and 164 acres of woodland -- near the crash scene.

"To me, it's the most important ground in the world," Price said. "It's where 95 percent of my mother's and stepfather's remains are."

The recipients will be Families of Flight 93 Inc., a newly formed nonprofit organization overseen by survivors of the 40 crew and passengers who died along with the jetliner's four hijackers.

Over and over, visiting families of Flight 93 victims have likened the crash scene to a cemetery -- the place where, because of the absolute violence of the impact, remains disappeared, unrecoverable, into the ground.

County Coroner Wallace Miller, deeming the land a coroner's investigation scene, has cordoned off the impact site and fenced off an outer perimeter of 70 acres where searchers found remains. He refuses entrance to all but family and authorized visitors.

"You go inside that inner fence, and it's an eerie feeling," said John Weir, land manager for PBS Coals Inc., another landholder with strips of woods and reclaimed strip mines around the crash scene.

Miller, though, can't hold the ground off-limits forever.

Hence, the push to buy the land from current owners and set it aside.

Most of that acquisition would be done by the nonprofit Conservation Fund, suburban Washington, D.C.-based preservationists who have purchased land ranging from wildlife areas to historic sites. The Conservation Fund -- which tries to fend off profiteering by refusing to pay more than market value -- is expected to dovetail its effort with that of Families of Flight 93 and hold the Shanksville-area property until the National Park Service or Somerset County is ready to use it as a memorial.

"We're in the very preliminary stages," said Chris Fanning, Conservation Fund spokeswoman.

On Tuesday, Weir reviewed the letter The Conservation Fund sent PBS a few weeks ago, a feeler for 200 acres of company land.

"We're willing to work with them the best we can," Weir said. "We want to have a happy ending."

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

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