TWO YEARS ago, I led a bus trip to Shanksville, the western Pennsylvania town where Flight 93 crashed on 9/11, killing 40 innocent Americans.
A group of us drove two hours to the site to help understand criticism of the design of the Flight 93 memorial. Some said the "crescent" shape was too reminiscent of the Islamic symbol. After taking a look, I didn't buy it. I wrote on this page:
"Now that I have been there, I understand the plan in a way that I never could have from images on my computer, and I no longer object to the design. Many of my listeners also came away with softened views, although some remain opposed."
The design was altered, but now there's a new commotion that touches on something else I wrote at the time:
"The 40 passengers and crew aboard Flight 93 did us all proud on 9/11. Now, so too are the people of Somerset County. I had trouble finding a 'Let's roll!' T- shirt even in a nearby town. No one can be seen cashing in on this. It's middle America."
Today, sad to say, something has changed in Shanksville. The memorial is behind schedule, and one of the reasons is that there has been no final sale of the land encompassing the crash site.
Michael Svonavec owns the second-largest tract on which the 1,000-plus-acre memorial is proposed. His land includes the spot where the airplane crashed. The temporary memorial to Flight 93 is there, attracting more than 130,000 people a year.
Svonavec is dangling a carrot in front of those seeking to buy his land for the memorial. Reports indicate he's seeking $10 million for his 273 acres - millions more than fair-market value. I tried to confirm that with Ed Root, who lost his cousin, Lorraine Bay, on Flight 93. He was part of my bus trip, and is president of the Families of Flight 93.
The value of the land out there is $1,000 to $2,000 an acre, he told me. The asking price - almost $37,000 an acre.
Root told me that about a month ago, Svonavec rejected an offer by Families of Flight 93 that exceeded the high end of that fair market figure. Now he's refusing to negotiate with the families, preferring to do business with the Park Service.
Two weeks ago, Svonavec put a metal donation box at the site of the temporary memorial. It sat under a sign saying "Flight 93 National Memorial" and also said: "Your donations go directly to securing and preserving this site and finding a permanent custodian to make the Flight 93 Memorial a reality." It even listed the memorial's official website, flight93nationalmemorial.org.
So what was the problem with a collection box to aid the memorial - for which a ribbon-cutting isn't planned until 2011 - 10 ten years after Flight 93 crashed?
It was misleading because the only place the funds "directly" headed were to Svonavec, who said publicly the box was an attempt to make up the costs of hiring private security to patrol the site over the last few months.
LAST WEEK, the National Park Service covered the box with duct tape and a trash bag after Svonavec failed to take it down himself. On Tuesday, Gov. Rendell pledged $120,000 from the state for hiring security at the site over the next two years.
That might end the controversy, but doesn't excuse Svonavec's action. He passed a collection basket around Shanksville even though the Park Service concluded a few months ago that added security wasn't necessary. They say there have been just two vandalism reports at the site over the last five years.
It's hard to take sides from this side of the state. Svonavec is certainly entitled to fair value for his land, but if Root is right and Svonavec is seeking far in excess of that, it's reprehensible.
Last fall, I was at the dedication of the Garden of Reflection in Bucks County, a testament to the 17 Bucks Countians who died on 9/11. The garden is done, and stunning: flowers bloom, fountain flow, visitors remember.
What a contrast to the litigation and stalling connected to the construction of a memorial at Ground Zero in Manhattan.
I assumed the results at Shanksville would be closer to that at Lower Makefield than Ground Zero. Seems I'm wrong. *