By Mary Pickels Tribune-Review
When the USS Somerset is commissioned on March 1, Johnstown native Matthew Konchan will be a “plank owner,” the name given to a ship’s first crew.
Konchan, 33, will be on deck for the commissioning ceremony, when the ship will be “brought to life” at Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing.
The ship commemorates the 40 crew members and passengers who thwarted a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, forcing United Flight 93 to crash in a Somerset County field, likely preventing it from reaching a target in Washington. Konchan, who grew up about 30 miles from the crash site near Shanksville, finds special meaning in serving aboard the ship named in honor of the place where the 40 men and women became heroes.
“When September 11 happened, I didn’t realize … I would be getting this opportunity 12 years later. I will be (aboard) for five years,” he said.
During the 12th anniversary memorial service at the Flight 93 National Memorial, Konchan was chosen to present a wreath to Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, and Sally Jewell, secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior.
“That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Konchan, who is stationed in San Diego.
Konchan recently spent a paternity leave in his hometown, where his wife, Jenny, gave birth on Feb. 1 to twins, Michael and Isabella. The couple has another son, Jacob, who will be 2 in April.
The family stays in touch through Skype and email during Konchan’s deployments, which typically last six months.
A 1999 graduate of Richland High School, Konchan said he joined the military for its educational opportunities. He earned a business degree and will mark his 10th anniversary with the Navy in March.
Konchan participated in a ship’s commissioning before as part of the first crew to serve aboard the USS James E. Williams.
Because such a large crowd is expected in Philadelphia — about 7,000, including a contingent of Somerset County residents and Flight 93 family members — he expects this experience to be a “completely different ballgame.”
Konchan already is aboard the ship, where items personalizing its namesake include green and white signs from Somerset County municipalities in hallways instead of numbers.
Konchan’s parents, Charles and Carol Konchan, will be among the visitors.
“It is just such an honor for my son to be on the USS Somerset. I am very happy with the way the Somerset community has embraced the whole USS Somerset ship and the commissioning,” said Carol Konchan of Johnstown. “I am just ecstatic the way (Somerset County Commissioner) John Vatavuk has really incorporated the county of Somerset into the ship.”
Vatavuk and his wife, Janet, gathered items representing Somerset County for the ship’s “mast stepping” ceremony near the end of its construction. Vatavuk worked to have the Navy include steel from the drag-line bucket of a coal-mining crane in the ship’s bow, and its steam and lubrication systems include about 200 steel valves made in the county.
Visitors will be able to tour sections of the ship after the commissioning.
“It’s a rare opportunity to board a Navy vessel,” Carol Konchan said.
The ship left New Orleans on Feb. 3 and is to arrive in Pennsylvania on Feb. 21.
Sailors will spend a week in Philadelphia performing community service, said Tom Metzger, president of the Philadelphia Council of the Navy League of the United States.
“The commissioning ceremony marks an important milestone in a ship’s life and completes the cycle from christening and launching to full status as a ship of the United States Navy,” Capt. Thomas L. Dearborn, commanding officer, said in a news release. “On March 1, when you hear the words ‘bring my ship to life,’ Somerset will come alive and her crew stand ready to take our place in America’s historic heritage of the sea,” Dearborn said.
The ship has a flight deck for helicopters and Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and a well deck for landing craft and amphibious vessels. It is 684 feet long and can carry up to 800 Marines and sailors.
It is one of three amphibious transport dock ships, including the USS New York and the USS Arlington, named after the places where planes seized by terrorists crashed on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people.