Families Ask Bush to Seize Land Parcel for 9/11 Memorial

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2008

It has been more than seven years since 20-year-old Deora Bodley and 39 other passengers and crew died in the fiery crash of United Airlines Flight 93, their hijacked plane disintegrating in a grove of hemlock trees outside Shanksville, Pa.

Most of the remains from the tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, were never recovered, making the bowl-shaped crash site in the western Pennsylvania countryside an unofficial cemetery and, for surviving relatives, sacred ground.

But efforts to buy property for a national Flight 93 memorial have bogged down in federal red tape and a protracted land dispute, angering family members and risking plans to hold a dedication ceremony on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The delays have prompted an advocacy group, Families of Flight 93, to ask President Bush to personally intervene during his final weeks in office to allow the federal government to seize the land needed for the memorial and to allocate part of the money for the project.

"He signed the memorial act. He wanted something to be there and to be in place for years and years to come," said Bodley's mother, Deborah Borza, of San Diego. "We have waited so long already. I hold on to being hopeful that between now and January 20, something will happen, something will break free."

Landowner Mike Svonavec of Svonavec Inc. of Somerset, Pa., said the National Park Service and Flight 93 groups are "trying to make my company and myself look like the bad guy in this."

The request to seize the land poses a dilemma for Bush, whose presidency has been entwined with the Sept. 11 attacks and with efforts to honor the nearly 3,000 victims killed that day. Bush has called Flight 93 "the first victory" in the war on terrorism, referring to the passenger rebellion that led the al-Qaeda hijackers to crash into empty countryside rather than their intended target of the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

"Somehow the brave men and women on Flight 93, knowing they would die, found the courage to use their final moments to save the lives of others," Bush said in 2003. "Few are called to show the kind of valor seen on Flight 93 or on the field of battle."

Flight 93, a lightly occupied Boeing 757 that made a late start out of Newark on its way to San Francisco, was taken over by four al-Qaeda hijackers, including pilot Ziad Samir Jarrah, at about 9:28 a.m. on Sept. 11, according to investigators. Two other jetliners had already crashed into the World Trade Center, and a third was about to hit the Pentagon.

Panicked passengers made dozens of cellphone calls and, after learning of the other hijackings and crashes, mounted an effort to thwart the hijackers shortly before 10 a.m., according to the 9/11 Commission Report. The cockpit recorder revealed sounds of a sustained assault on the hijackers and Jarrah's futile attempts to stop them through erratic flight maneuvers. The terrorists quickly gave up any plans of reaching Washington, instead plowing into the field in Somerset County, Pa., at about 10:03 a.m., killing all four hijackers and 40 passengers and crew.

Gordon "Gordie" Felt, who lost his older brother, Edward, in the crash and is now president of Families of Flight 93, said relatives and friends of those who died "consider that sacred ground." Only about 10 percent of the victims' remains were recovered from the area, where airplane remnants and other wreckage are still revealed from time to time.

"When Flight 93 crashed, there wasn't much left, and it created this huge debris field," said Felt, of Remsen, N.Y. "What was left was our loved ones; it's a cemetery for us. We want to make sure it's not just being tramped across, and that it's protected and preserved."

Even without any formal facilities, as many as 140,000 people visit the site each year, according to the National Park Service. A temporary memorial includes ball caps, signs, benches made by schoolchildren and other handmade testimonials. The site was moved farther away from the crash area earlier this year because of a dispute with a landowner.

The effort to build a permanent memorial began with legislation signed by Bush in September 2002, leading to plans for a 2,200-acre national park site. The bulk of the memorial is projected to cost about $56 million, including $30 million from the private sector, $10 million from the state of Pennsylvania and the remainder from the federal government, according to federal officials and the Flight 93 group. About 1,400 acres would need to be bought by the government to make it work, according to federal officials.

But much like faltering efforts to build a monument at Ground Zero in New York, the Pennsylvania project has been dogged by delays and, most important, a simmering dispute over a 273-acre tract that includes most of the crash site. The quarry company that owns the land, Svonavec Inc. of Somerset, has rejected a $250,000 offer from the Park Service for the land, as well as $750,000 from Families of Flight 93, according to documents and interviews.

After Svonavec rebuffed the initial federal offer, the Park Service commissioned a second appraisal of the property, but it was rejected internally and never released because it did not meet federal standards, according to Dan Wenk, a Park Service deputy director. A third appraisal was begun earlier this year and, according to Wenk, is on track to be completed by Jan. 5.

Wenk said he thinks the project can still be almost finished in time for the 2011 dedication, provided Svonavec accepts an offer following the third appraisal. Wenk also said the Park Service would prefer not to resort to forcibly taking ownership of the property.

"What we're shooting for is to have this resolved in the early spring of 2009 so that we can begin to implement phase one of the plans for the construction of the memorial," said Wenk, adding that work must begin by next summer to reach the 2011 goal. "Everyone would like to see this moving along faster with more positive results."

But the original memorial legislation was amended earlier this year by Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to allow the federal government to use its power of eminent domain to acquire the property. "I do not believe there are any other possibilities," said John J. Reynolds, chairman of the Flight 93 Advisory Commission, who joined in the recent letter to Bush. "It would seem the president would want to get this done, but so far, nothing is getting done."

The Flight 93 group thinks there is no use pursuing further negotiations with the Svonavec firm and accuses the company's secretary-treasurer, Mike Svonavec, of seeking as much as $10 million for the land. Many of the families are also angry with Svonavec for forcing the Park Service to move the temporary memorial off his land, citing security reasons.

"All that we have worked for is endangered," the Families of Flight 93 and a related group wrote in a Dec. 9 letter to Bush. "It would be an insult to the memory of the brave souls on Flight 93, as well as to the nation that demanded that their sacrifice be remembered, that inertia prevented us from completing our task."

Svonavec accuses federal officials of failing to follow guidelines for buying property and said that his only interest is in getting a fair third-party appraisal of the land, which had been strip-mined for coal before it reverted to an area of meadows and trees before the Flight 93 crash. Svonavec also denied ever placing a $10 million price tag on the parcel.

"All we've ever asked is that an independent appraisal be done on the property, and then let's sit down and work it out," he said. "I've jumped through hoops. I'd do anything I can to get it done. But when they're hiding appraisals, what can you do?"

The White House has yet to respond to the Dec. 9 letter, the families said. White House spokesman Peter Seat said the president is reviewing the request.

"The president recognizes the contributions of those working to memorialize the heroes of Flight 93 with a fitting tribute at the spot where they gave their lives to ensure that others would live," Seat said.

While Borza remains hopeful about Bush, she said she is also prepared to lobby President-elect Barack Obama if needed.

"My message for President-elect Obama would be for that administration to join us and make sure we have a place of reflection for the heroes of Flight 93," she said. "The most important thing is to reach our groundbreaking date and have something there for the 10th anniversary."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company