Fire burns 3 administrative buildings at Flight 93 memorial; visitors center unaffected

By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith and Lexi Belculfine Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. —  Fire burned through an area of the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Somerset County, on Friday, destroying three administrative buildings that housed a portion of the memorial’s prized artifacts.

The collection, which includes the American flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that was presented to the park just last month, was kept in fireproof safes, according to National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst. The collection’s condition, however, cannot be assessed until investigators are able to enter the memorial site sometime this morning, he said.

The affected buildings served as the park’s headquarters and included the superintendent’s office on Park Headquarters Road, Mr. Litterst said. A fourth building was damaged but saved, local fire officials said.

Local fire officials will hand off investigation of the fire to a team of National Park Service investigators today, Mr. Litterst said. No estimate has been made yet of the buildings’ replacement and repair cost.

A Congressional gold medal awarded to the memorial was kept offsite and was not damaged, according to Mr. Litterst. Neither were the portions of the park that visitors see, which are approximately 2 miles from the administrative buildings that were destroyed.

“The sacred ground, the wall of names, the construction of the visitors center, the educational center have not been affected in any manner,” said Gordon Felt, president of Families of Flight 93 and brother of Edward Felt, who died onboard the flight. “[Memorial superintendent] Jeff Reinbold has assured me the memorial will be open first thing in the morning to accept visitors, and the experience that guests have who come to pay their respects won’t be changed at all.”

The fire, which began at approximately 3:10 p.m. outside what would have been a break room, was quickly fanned by the site’s usual gusty winds into a blaze that neither park employees nor firefighters could contain, according to Mr. Litterst. The seven employees inside the buildings were able to evacuate without injury — but not before they rescued an oral history taken from September 11 first responders as well as a photograph album, he said.

The fire was underway when it first was noticed by an employee, he said. Mr. Litterst said he was not sure if the fire started in the park’s long, naturalized meadow grass and also said he did not know if any of the employees smoked.

Firefighters from seven companies responded to the scene. Stoystown Volunteer Fire Company led the effort and was aided by companies from Shanksville, Friedens, Berlin, Central City, Hooversville and Sykesville.

As of about 9:15 p.m., Stoystown fire Chief David Johnson said there was still no word on exactly where the fire started or what might have caused it. The fire was “fully involved” when first responders arrived, he said, so the emphasis was placed on saving the fourth building.

The fire was under control within 45 minutes to an hour, he said, but an excavator continued unearthing hot spots through approximately 7 p.m.

“It’s just a pile of rubble, except the one building they saved,” Mr. Johnson said of the administrative offices.

Two fire marshals are investigating, with a third expected to join in overnight, he said.

The memorial in Shanksville marks the spot where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed during the terrorist attacks in 2001. The plane, which was traveling from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, went down in a reclaimed strip mine after passengers fought back against its hijackers. All 33 passengers and seven crew members were killed along with the hijackers.

A memorial plaza was completed in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks in 2011. It features a white stone wall with separate panels for each victim, with one name engraved on each.

The wall traces the path of the doomed flight. The wall and 40 groves of 40 trees are ways to focus attention on the crash site and the victims’ memories.

Officials have said they hope construction of the visitors center will be finished by June. That would give park officials three months to install exhibits in time to open for the 14th anniversary of the crash.

Mr. Felt said that despite the setback, families of the crash victims and the memorial’s many other supporters will continue working to finish the site. The destruction of the buildings was “tragic,” he said, but fortunately no one was hurt.

He hopes, the memorial’s collection of artifacts will be as fortunate.

“We’ll keep a prayer through the night and hope most of it comes out safe and secure,” Mr. Felt said.

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