Covering Flight 93 leaves indelible mark on reporter

September 12, 2011|By JENNIFER FITCH |

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — All of Somerset County, Pa., appeared to be quiet at 6 a.m. Sunday until my car turned down the lengthy road that takes visitors to the newly dedicated Flight 93 National Memorial.

There, I encountered all the vehicles that seemed to be missing from the main roads feeding the site. It took almost an hour to reach the parking area where shuttle buses waited to transport media and other visitors another quarter-mile to the memorial itself.

Overnight rains had given way to sunshine and a blue sky reminiscent of the one on Sept. 11, 2001.

Arriving reporters approached a folding table for credentials issued by the National Park Service. Those of us who had passed a background check received separate, green badges labeling us White House Press Pool for the president’s visit, which was a poorly kept secret all week.

The National Park Service issued 654 media credentials. Among those were requests from journalists from Germany, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, according to agency spokesman Mike Litterst.

Great Britain’s BBC and France’s AFP were represented, Litterst said.

He said the logistics in planning the weekend were monumental and unprecedented for the National Park Service. Saturday’s events actually faced cancellation because rains deluged not only the fields for parking, but also the road leading to the backup, paved parking area at an airport.

Litterst credited the people of Somerset County for helping the National Park Service and Flight 93 families.

“Every time I turn around, someone is showing up with a plate of cookies for the staff,” he said.

As I helped the media assistant look for my name on her credentials list, I saw I was registered a few names after Matt Lauer. I passed through the metal detectors with former Pennsylvania governor and former U.S. Department of Homeland Security director Tom Ridge.

The only sounds through much of the 10th-anniversary commemoration ceremony came from the crunch of photographers’ shoes on gravel. Seven to nine thousand people were expected to attend, but it was nearly silent, other than a network television reporter speaking much too loudly in a live report.

Although the ceremony was poignant, I didn’t feel the full effect of being at that site until afterward. I took my camera on a walk through Memorial Plaza, where the names of 40 deceased passengers and crew members are etched into a granite wall.

I’ll never forget three people I met at that wall.

The first, Derek Vinnicombe, was a bit flustered. He adjusted a handful of wildflowers several times under Christian Adams’ name. Vinnicombe explained to me that Adams was his colleague in a wine business. Vinnicombe said he wanted to bring a wreath to the memorial for Adams, but when he traveled from his home in Germany, he couldn’t carry live flowers on the plane. He also couldn’t find a florist near the crash site, so he picked the yellow flowers.

Vinnicombe expressed repeatedly that he didn’t feel the flowers were good enough.

“I should’ve poured a bottle of Riesling,” he said with a smile.

The next people I met were Akron, Ohio, father and daughter Gene and Chelsea Dye. Chelsea clasped my hands in hers when I introduced myself.

Chelsea, who is blind, traced her hands along the granite to feel the Flight 93 names. She wondered aloud whether victims Donald Arthur Peterson and Jean Hoadley Peterson were husband and wife.

From what I’ve read online, the Petersons were married for 17 years.

Chelsea said she hopes the couple was holding hands when the hijacked plane made its rapid descent and crashed. Her father responded that, regardless, they’re holding hands now in heaven.

I asked the Dyes why they chose to travel seven hours round-trip to visit the memorial honoring the people who thwarted a fourth terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

“It’s the least we could do for what they did,” Gene said.

Jennifer Fitch covers Franklin County, Pa., news for The Herald-Mail.

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