By Dave Sutor Tribute Democrat
JOHNSTOWN — On September 10, 2001, the rural stretch of Lincoln Highway that passes through Stonycreek Township was of little significance except to aficionados of the historic road and local residents.
It changed forever the next day.
In a reclaimed strip-mining field, United Airlines Flight 93 slammed into the earth during attacks launched against the United States by al-Qaida.
The 40 passengers and crew members aboard the plane fought back against the hijackers, which resulted in the aircraft spiraling out of control and crashing. Their actions probably prevented the terrorists from striking a target in Washington, D.C., as part of a coordinated act of war that included flying planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center Towers.
The entire area instantly became venerated ground.
“It was just an old abandoned strip cut, and now it’s ground of sacrifice and importance,” said Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk.
The Lincoln Highway passes through the Flight 93 National Memorial, a site operated by the National Park Service.
Since shortly after the attacks, local residents, family members of the victims, politicians and numerous organizations have worked together to preserve the land as a shrine. And, while access roads and buildings have been constructed, the property still looks almost as natural, serene and isolated as it did before the fateful day.
“In many ways, it hasn’t changed,” said Jeff Reinbold, the site’s manager.
There is a strong sadness, too.
“It’s such a place of violence, but still in a place that’s so beautiful and comforting,” said Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, whose brother, Edward Felt, was aboard the airliner.
Currently, the site includes a walkway, small shelter and the spot where the plane crashed. The Wall of Names, a simple design of white stone, features the names of all 40 passengers and crew members.
On September 10, ground was broken for a Memorial Visitor Center Complex. All of the funding has been secured. Construction is expected to be completed toward the end of 2015.
At the groundbreaking, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said hopefully the “story that’s told here will make this world a better place.” She is one of many federal officials and other dignitaries who have visited the location throughout the past 12 years, including Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Millions of visitors, including Lincoln Highway tourists, also have come to the location.
On June 24, more than 100 individuals came to the memorial as part of the 2013 Lincoln Highway 100th Anniversary Tour.
“The tour stopped at significant historical sites along the highway,” said John Peters, who helped promote the event. “Flight 93 crashed along the Lincoln Highway. The stop provided an opportunity for those of us on the tour to pay our respects and reflect on the events of that day.”
A similar 90th anniversary tour visited the Flight 93 location in 2003.
“The memorial wasn’t built and all we could see was an open field and a makeshift memorial,” said Peters.
“The National Park Service and those who designed the memorial did a great job. It is simple, yet a very appropriate honor to the crew and passengers of Flight 93.”