Flight 93 Memorial open while fire investigation continues

By Joyce Gannon Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After combing through the remains of a fast-moving fire that destroyed the headquarters operation of the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, officials Saturday said the vast majority of the archives that tell the story of the crash site remain intact.

However, a 7-foot-by-14 foot American flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and that was donated to the memorial last month, was destroyed in Friday’s blaze, the National Park Service said.

Also lost in the fire, the NPS said, were some personal items that belonged to the 40 passengers and crew members who perished when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in the field in Stony Creek during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Also destroyed were about 100 items that visitors have left as tributes to the crash victims; and DVD recordings of annual ceremonies at the site and meetings of the memorial’s federal advisory commission.

Among the items saved were most of the 820 oral histories conducted since 2005 that include first-person accounts of the crash, the subsequent investigation and creation of the national memorial. A photo collection that includes 480 DVDs also was saved, the NPS said.

The memorial site opened to visitors Saturday as officials from the NPS and Pennsylvania state police assessed the damage from Friday’s fire that burned the headquarters complex. The park’s visitors’ area is located about two miles from where the fire broke out.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, Mike Litterst, public affairs specialist for the NPS, said in a statement.

Mr. Litterst described the headquarters complex as a total loss even though earlier reports stated one of its four units was not destroyed. “It’s highly unlikely the fourth can be saved,” he said.

“While the headquarters complex is a complete loss, we continue to be grateful that there was no loss of life to visitors or employees, especially given the speed with which the fire engulfed the structures,” he said.

One member of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department suffered minor first-degree burns while fighting the fire, the NPS said. Seven fire departments responded to the blaze, which broke out about 3 p.m. Friday.

Seven employees working at the site’s headquarters escaped without injuries and carried out photographs and some archives.

The personal items that belonged to Flight 93’s passengers and crew and that were lost in Friday’s fire were at the site to be photographed and prepared for display in a permanent visitors’ center that is expected to open next year. Already complete is a white stone wall with the names of all the passengers and crew members who perished when Flight 93 went down. The NPS has estimated the new visitors center will attract 500,000 annually, up from the approximate 300,000 who currently visit the site each year.

While some tribute items were lost Friday, another 60,000 items are stored offsite and were not affected, the NPS said.

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