Sept. 11: Flt 93 site saw tragedy before

Sept. 6, 2002 at 4:33 PM
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(Part of UPI's Special Report on Sept. 11)

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. (UPI) -- The 10-square mile area in southwestern Pennsylvania where United Flight 93 crashed Sept. 11 is no stranger to tragedy.

Flight 93 was the fourth of the hijacked planes and the only one that apparently never fulfilled its terrible mission, because passengers attacked the hijackers, bringing the aircraft down prematurely.

About 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Flight 93 crashed in an abandoned coal strip mine. This summer, not far away, the nation was riveted on the drama of nine miners trapped 240 feet underground in a flooded mine and their successful rescue. Within that same 10-square mile area in 1889, the Johnstown Flood killed more than 2,200 people. It was the country's worst disaster of its time.

Flight 93's end could have compounded the day's tragedies.

"It was hard to tell from what was shown on television because it looked like the plane crashed far from anything. But the plane crashed about two miles from the town of Shanksville,(Pa.) and a few seconds difference and it could have crashed in a school or any number of other places," Larry Weber, a Shanksville resident who organized a concert for the one-year anniversary, told United Press International.

"Many here believe it was providential," he said.

Flight 93, bound for San Francisco, had been delayed taking off from Newark, N.J., and passengers using their telephones were able to learn about the airliners that had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A number of those on Flight 93 decided to attack the hijackers.

A tribute entitled "Time for Honor and Hope" is planned for the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, and 500 family members of the victims and 30,000 to 50,000 others are expected to climb to the Pennsylvania hilltop where 40 passengers and crew as well as the four hijackers lost their lives.

Accommodating so many people, as well as President George W. Bush, to an area accessible by one single-lane road has turned into a logistical and security nightmare, but several schools in Shanksville will be closed that day so their school buses can be used.

On the evening of Sept. 11, a concert at the Christian Missionary Alliance Church, which seats 1,500, will be telecast locally and in Pittsburgh. Tickets sold out within two days of being offered.

"We wanted to honor the heroes of Flight 93, pay tribute to the police and firefighters and the American spirit as one nation under God and that was the concept from the very beginning," Weber said. "About 150 musicians will perform a program of traditional hymns, patriotic songs and an original work for orchestra by Ronn Huff."

Thousands continue to visit the crash site, where a temporary memorial features a 7 1/2-foot bronze statue and a memorial garden. There are concrete benches where visitors can stop to meditate and read quotations inscribed on large stones.

Just as thousands have left a personal mementos at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, many leave something behind at the Pennsylvania site and volunteers have been cataloging the thousands of items.

"The folded uniform of a flight attendant, pretty much did us all in," one volunteer said.

Somerset County wants to make the site a national historic monument and place it under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. A bill to do so passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is pending in a Senate committee.

Nearby is the National Park historic site of the Johnstown Memorial. In the 19th Century, Johnstown, Pa., was a booming steel town built in the flood plain of the East Conemaugh River. But after killer floods in 1889, 1936 and 1977, it was dubbed the "Flood City."

A 72-foot-high earthen dam had been built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the 1800s, but it was later purchased by Pittsburgh industrialists Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon and others who formed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

The club raised the lake level and the three-mile long one-mile wide, 65-foot deep lake was the focus of the club's recreational activities and was stocked with fish. But the dam was not maintained.

On Memorial Day 1889, heavy rain raised the height of the lake an inch every 10 minutes.

The dam broke, sending 20 million tons of water down a 450-foot drop to the valley below, carrying with it houses, the Gautier Wire Mill, animals, trees and train cars.

The 65-foot wall of water slammed into Johnstown, crushing buildings and everything in its path. The barbed wire from the wire factory tangled everything.

When the wreckage could go no further, it began to smash, crash and pile up, one piece upon another creating a pile of rubble three stories high where the town once stood and then debris piled up against the old Stone Bridge.

Later that day, much of the debris trapped by the bridge caught fire, entrapping 80 people who had survived the initial wave of water.

In the end, 2,208 were officially declared dead but it's estimated hundreds missing were never found. Some remains were found months and even years later.

Much in the way the country responded to the attacks of Sept. 11, there was a spontaneous outpouring of food, clothing, medical assistance and donations to help Johnstown recover.

Looking today at photographs of the aftermath, as rescuers dug through rubble for survivors, one is struck by the eerie similarity to photos of the World Trade Center just hours after the terrorist attacks.


(This article is part of UPI's Special Report on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It was reported by Alex Cukan in Albany, N.Y.)

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