Park Service working on Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania

SOMERSET, Pa.-Barely five months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the National Park Service is working with local officials to establish a memorial at the southwestern Pennsylvania site where hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed.

"We had people almost immediately after the crash recognizing that this was not some ordinary event, and that some kind of monument or memorial ought to be placed on the site," said Brad Clemenson, a spokesman for Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who represents the nearby area. "We told people it was premature-it was still a crime scene then-but we took their names and ideas, and we have continued to work with everyone."

Officials from Somerset County, the borough of Shanksville, Pa., and Stonycreek Township, Pa., have taken the lead in preserving the site and establishing a task force to design a memorial for the 40 passengers and crew who died there. Soon after the crash, officials from these jurisdictions asked for and got assistance from the National Park Service.

Murtha is working with the Park Service to craft legislation that would initiate the process for establishing a national memorial at the site. Typically, Congress asks the Park Service to consider whether a site is worthy of national memorial status, at which point the agency conducts a detailed study before recommending what form of designation is appropriate. Alternately, the president can invoke the 1906 Antiquities Act to establish new Park Service sites unilaterally.

Already, private donations that could ultimately be used to build a memorial are pouring in. At least two funds have been established to keep those monies in escrow until design plans have materialized.

The efforts to preserve the sites of the Sept. 11 attacks are part of a trend toward ever-more rapid memorialization. In decades past, Congress and the Park Service would typically wait decades before establishing historical monuments or memorials. But beginning with the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington and accelerating with the Oklahoma City memorial to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, the American way of commemorating history has changed dramatically. The memorial to the Oklahoma City victims was dedicated five years after the bombing.

"Americans are demanding memorials sooner, partly as a way to help themselves get through the ordeal," said Linda Neal, the Park Service's project director for the national parks located in New York Harbor. "It's become much more interactive. People no longer just lay a wreath or flower at a tomb for an unknown soldier of World War I. They leave personal notes, teddy bears and all sorts of artifacts."

Officials say that the memorialization effort in southwestern Pennsylvania has advanced more rapidly than efforts to create memorials at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan or at the Pentagon. One major reason is that in Pennsylvania, only about a half-dozen landowners stand to be affected by the construction of a memorial, and the biggest of those owners-a coal company-has already indicated a willingness to cooperate.

Moreover, the assessment and cleanup of the Pennsylvania site has been far less complicated than at either of the other two crash sites.

In New York City, "there's so much going on I don't even know where to start," Neal said. "There are scores of organizations and coalitions cropping up, and they're all grappling with what should be the process for planning a memorial and redevelopment of lower Manhattan. Sometimes these groups intermingle, sometimes they stay pretty segregated. It depends on who's coordinating the meetings.

"In New York, the Park Service has not been asked to do anything officially. I've simply been attending as many of the committee meetings as I can, but if you go to one, you may be missing five others held the same night."

In Pennsylvania, by contrast, local officials tapped the Park Service's institutional knowledge from the beginning.

"In October, we helped the county develop procedures for collecting artifacts," said Joanne Hanley, the superintendent of four Park Service sites in southwestern Pennsylvania. To do this, the Park Service brought in Pamela West, a Washington-based Park Service employee who has helped gather artifacts at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial and the site of the Oklahoma City bombing.

The Park Service also helped organize a December town meeting near the crash site. The purpose of the meeting, Hanley said, was to discuss "not the memorial itself, but a process for establishing one, because frankly the process is just as important as the memorial itself. It needs to be inclusive and have many voices. It should be slow and deliberate. And the process itself can serve a very important purpose in healing and grieving." To drive home this point, the Park Service invited several panelists with experience working with Oklahoma City's much-praised memorial task force to speak at the meeting.

"The Park Service is playing a very supportive role, but only when asked by the county commissioners," Hanley said. "The worst thing that could happen is for the government to come in and tell the local people what to do. It has to be bottom-up and inclusive. In Oklahoma City, the task force included 300 people, and every decision was unanimous."

Because the efforts to memorialize the three Sept. 11 sites are not being coordinated, the quick progress in Pennsylvania means that the sites could open at different times and offer varied narrative content. While cooperation further down the road is considered likely, some observers also worry that memorializing the sites too quickly could make it hard to put the events of Sept. 11 into their proper historical context.

"Sometimes it's difficult to know what that larger story will be," Neal said, adding that the war on terrorism launched after Sept. 11 is far from over.

Hanley takes some comfort in noting that the Park Service is quite used to dealing with the needs of memorialization. In her region alone, Hanley oversees Fort Necessity National Battlefield, where the first battle of the French and Indian War was fought, and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, marking a tragedy that killed 2,209 people on May 31, 1889. That was the largest one-day loss of civilian life in the United States-until Sept. 11, 2001.