Somerset County is usually a tranquil, bucolic area full of small towns, fertile farms and gorgeous mountain scenery.
But within a short span of ten months from September 2001 to July 2002, this pastoral county in Southwestern Pennsylvania grabbed the attention of the world as the site of two astounding events.
Out of the tragedies that grew out of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the effort to cut short a fourth attack by a jet plane on an undetermined site by the passengers is one of exemplary heroism. To save what is presumed to have been a terrorists’ target in the nation’s capital, the plane’s passengers coordinated an attack to take over the plane just over Somerset County. In doing so, they quashed the terrorists’ plan, only to lose their lives in the subsequent crash near Shanksville.
Their bravery has not been overlooked. A fitting memorial complete with a informative visitors center and reforested landscape now honors these fallen heroes.
Privileged to live fairly close by, I got to see the construction of the memorial from its very beginnings. On a beautiful sunny day last October, I made my most recent visit to hear for the first time the bells on what is called the “Tower of Voices,” a lofty monument to heroism.
Considered to be a 93-feet tall musical instrument, the tower has 40 chimes, one for each of the passengers and crew.
With a design found no where else in the world, the tower optimizes air flow through its walls to reach the interior chime chamber. Varying in size from 5 to 10 feet in length, the chimes are wind activated by long sails attached to their bottoms.
Obviously, the best times to visit them are on a windy day, a frequent occurrence on the mountaintops of Somerset County.
Lucky to be on site on a fairly breezy day, I heard a number of the chimes resound over the viewing area every time the wind kicked up. Somewhat muted and reverential, the musical tones produced feel fittingly reverential, even melancholic.
While each of the chimes has its own unique tone, they are also intended to blend in with the others. The tower is not only beautifully designed, it also manages to elicit an appropriately subtle sacrosanct mood.
Flight 93 National Memorial is open seven days a week and is free of charge. Plan on spending at least two hours to see the exhibits, walk the grounds and take in the Tower of Voices. For more information, go to https://www.nps.gov/flni/index.htm.
Just a few miles away, a heroic event of another sort took place less than a year later when, on July 24, 2002, nine coal miners were trapped underground in frigid temperatures for 77 hours.
At 8:45 p.m., the miners breached a wall in an adjacent abandoned mine sending over 100 million gallons of water spewing into the Quecreek mine.
Holding on for dear life in a small space, 40-inches high and 240-feet below the Earth’s surface, the miners came close to breathing their last several times.
After a six inch pipe drilled into the mine, the largest rescue mission in the state in almost three decades pumped life-saving oxygen into the mine.
With the assistance both of state and federal government rescue agencies, the miners were all saved after a 26-inch hole bored into the mine enabled them to escape via a capsule 22-inches in diameter and lifted them to safety one-by-one. The “super drill” that successfully bored into the earth was brought in from West Virginia by police escort.
This remarkable story that occurred on and under the 134-acre Dormel Farm is retold via a thrilling 40-minute video at a memorial museum operated by the nonprofit Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation located on the actual rescue site.
“The miners probably wouldn’t have lasted another hour,” said Bill Arnold, farm owner and the foundation’s executive director. “When I made the timeline on the rescue effort, I counted 10 times when they should have been dead.”
Among the items on display in the museum are the actual rescue capsule as well as the one used in the Disney film, “The Pennsylvania Miners’ Story.” Other items include the broken drill bit, miners’ clothing, equipment and photographs.
“Thirty percent of what we do here deals with mining history to make sure people know what coal is and what it’s used for,” Arnold said.
Outside, visitors can walk the grounds and see both the air shaft and rescue tunnel, now covered by a metal grate. To give visitors a sense of the small space in which the miners were trapped, they can crawl into a small structure that simulates the experience spatially.
From time to time, some of the mine survivors visit the museum, and , for a $100 fee, one of them will give a presentation and answer question to group visitors. A portion of the fee is given to the speaker; the rest is put in a fund to cover future expenses the miners might incur. On the day of my visit, I got to hear a detailed account of the rescue by mine safety consultant, C. Greg Turner, who’s been involved in mine rescues around the world.
The museum, located at 140 Haupt Road in Somerset is open during winter hours by appointment. For more information, phone (814) 445-5090 or visit www.9for9.org.
(Dave Zuchowski is a former travel columnist for the New Castle News.)