NEW ORLEANS - Abandoned in a Western Pennsylvania field since the mid-1990s, a pair of towering, rusted cranes bore silent witness to a national tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, as United Flight 93 plunged into the earth just a few hundred yards away.

The dragline cranes, relics of the coal strip-mining heyday of Somerset County, were standing by the smoking crater when first responders arrived from nearby Shanksville. They stayed there for years afterward, becoming to regular visitors part of the hallowed landscape.

Soon, one will help form the backbone of a new Navy ship, the Somerset, honoring the 40 passengers of Flight 93 who died in the crash after fighting back against the terrorists who had taken over the cockpit.

The 22 tons of steel that once formed a crane bucket already have been molded into a bow stem, which then will be welded onto the hull where it slices through the water. The $1.2 billion, 684-foot-long assault vessel will be one of three new ships, including the Arlington and the New York, named in memory of 9/11 victims.

Yesterday, on a chilly morning in a shipyard near here, about 100 people gathered to celebrate the official start of the Somerset's construction: the keel-laying.

"I stand before you with gratitude in my heart, and with hope for the future," said Gordon Felt, whose brother, Edward, was a Flight 93 passenger. "We are here to build upon a memory we cannot afford to lose."

To many family members, the tribute is twofold, Felt said.

"Most of us feel an overwhelming love for the people of Somerset County, who opened their hearts and their homes to us in a way I don't think anyone could have expected," said Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93 group. "I look at this as a tribute to that entire community. Theirs is also a story of heroism and of courage."

One of 12 ships being built to replace outdated vessels in the Navy fleet, the 25,000-ton Somerset is expected to be completed in 2012. It will transport troops, weapons, vehicles and supplies for war missions, but also will be used for humanitarian efforts during natural disasters or other emergencies.

In addition to a 363-person crew, the Somerset will be able to accommodate up to 800 troops, plus tanks, trucks, hovercraft, and as many as four helicopters.

Of the trio of 9/11 ships, the Somerset is the last to begin construction. Work on the Arlington, named in honor of the Pentagon attack, got under way last year. The New York debuted last month near the World Trade Center site.

Like the Somerset, the New York was built by Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding in Avondale, La. And, as with the crane from Shanksville, steel from the World Trade Center site was built into the ship's bow.

Both cranes now are gone from the Flight 93 crash site. One, standing 120 feet tall, was originally to be incorporated into the memorial planned for the field. But when the cost of maintaining it appeared prohibitive, Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk came up with the idea of attaching part of it to the ship.

"This steel will be at the very front of the ship, breaking the waters the whole way around the world," said Vatavuk, who traveled to Louisiana for the ceremony.

Several family members of Flight 93 passengers agreed that the residents of Somerset County deserve to be honored, too.

"The people of Somerset are such a tribute to this country," said Patrick White, whose cousin was one of the passengers who stormed the cockpit.

"To know that one of the pieces of equipment that helped to provide a livelihood for those good people is going to, in a sense, be the backbone of that vessel is incredible to me."

White's cousin, Louis "Joey" Nacke, was 42 and the only Flight 93 passenger who lived in Pennsylvania. Taking the flight was part of a last-minute business trip, and Nacke had been looking forward to returning to New Hope to celebrate his anniversary.

Nacke, whose father served in the Navy, would be "immensely gratified by the notion that there was this formal recognition," White said, "recognition that will endure as long as the ship itself."

Silent Sky, Hallowed Ground

From the moment Flight 93 went down in Shanksville, Pa., on 9/11, it has been the site of remembrances of many of those who lost their lives that tragic day. For a two-page photo gallery of the hallowed ground, see Pages A8 and A9. And for additional photos, go to go.philly.com/flight93

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Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or asteele@phillynews.com.