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A sacred groundbreaking

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - For eight years, supporters of the Flight 93 Memorial park have weathered criticism of the size and the cost of the project, struggled with landowners over property rights, and lobbied Congress to raise funding for its construction.

A group of family members and dignitaries prepare to turn their shovels during the ground breaking ceremony for the September 11 Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa.  (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
A group of family members and dignitaries prepare to turn their shovels during the ground breaking ceremony for the September 11 Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - For eight years, supporters of the Flight 93 Memorial park have weathered criticism of the size and the cost of the project, struggled with landowners over property rights, and lobbied Congress to raise funding for its construction.

They even faced a mini-storm over its crescent-shaped design. Yesterday, the park moved one giant step closer to reality.

Standing a few hundred yards from the site where the hijacked Boeing 757 plunged to the earth Sept. 11, 2001, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar led a group of politicians, relatives of the dead, and local residents in a groundbreaking ceremony.

The 2,200-acre national park, scheduled to open on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, is dedicated to the 40 passengers and crew members responsible for overpowering the hijackers and forcing the plane down in an abandoned strip mine 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Evidence has shown the hijackers' target was the U.S. Capitol.

"Sept. 11 stands as one of America's darkest days," Salazar said on an unseasonably warm afternoon in the Laurel Highlands mountain range. "We saw light illuminated by those who died in valor."

Relatives and others - including Gov. Rendell and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) - said the occasion was a major turning point in the evolution of the memorial, which Congress authorized in 2002.

"This is the most significant date since 9/11," said Patrick White, who lost his 42-year-old cousin, Louis J. Nacke II of New Hope, in the crash. "It is the change from words to deeds."

With a sigh, Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, told the crowd of several hundred: "We made it.

"Not to the goal or the finish line, or any semblance of closure, but to a milestone on the journey."

Los Angeles architect Paul Murdoch, whose design for the park was selected from 1,000 submissions in an international competition, said he was relieved the day had finally arrived.

"This project has had more challenges than anyone could have imagined," said Murdoch, who endured criticism from some corners that the crescent-shape design of a grove of 40 memorial trees was a tribute to Islam.

The grove, in fact, follows the contours of the open landscape, arching around the impact site, also known as the "sacred ground," or final resting place of the victims. Murdoch's design encompasses 1,300 acres of the park, which sits largely in a mountaintop bowl.

(The remaining 900 acres will be a buffer against commercial development.)

The symbol-rich design will feature a 93-foot carillon, whose chimes will recall the voices of the passengers as they spoke their last words to loved ones. A 40-foot-high wall - tracing the path and altitude of the Boeing 757 that day - will open onto a viewing platform over the sacred ground.

Work on the first phase - to be completed by Sept. 11, 2011 - may begin this fall or, at the latest, in the spring, Murdoch said.

The initial construction includes regrading the land, building access roads, and beginning to develop design features around the sacred ground.

The carillon and the visitors' center, which will hold artifacts left by visitors to the site and other items related to 9/11, will be finished sometime after that, depending on the success of fund-raising, he said.

Salazar, shovel in hand, launched the groundbreaking with a call of "Let's roll" - the famous words uttered by Todd Beamer as he and other passengers geared up for their assault on the cockpit.

In front of Salazar stood four young relatives of passengers on the plane.

They turned shovelfuls of dirt as a symbolic gesture to their generation and the commitment to preserve the memory of those who perished.

Felt said that, with children now growing up in a post-9/11 society with no memory of the event, the park would be "a lasting and permanent memorial" and a place where "history lives on."