Box of trouble at Flight 93 site
By Amy Worden, Philadelphia Inquirer
The sudden appearance of a cash-donation box on the future site of the Flight 93 memorial park in Somerset County has infuriated relatives of the crash victims, and, some believe, could signal a breakdown in negotiations with a key landowner, jeopardizing plans for the 1,100-acre national park.
Family members say the metal box - which sits below a sign reading "Flight 93 National Memorial" and is unauthorized by the National Park Service that runs the site - is an affront to the memory of 33 passengers and seven crew members who died there on 9/11 and an attempt to profit from their deaths.
Landowner Mike Svonavec, whose 273-acre parcel sits on a critical section of the future park, said he had no intention of offending the families when he erected the box on Saturday. He hoped only to cover costs associated with security at the site.
But Patrick White, vice president of Families of Flight 93, said the box was the most recent impediment that Svonavec, who operates Svonavec Inc., a stone quarry, had created "to avoid dealing earnestly with the families, the Park Service, the county or anyone."
"We do not think it appropriate to ask the American public, under guise of a public donation to a private landowner, to protect public interest," said White, whose cousin Louis Nacke, of Bucks County, was aboard the doomed flight.
White and Park Service officials fear the action by the second-largest landowner within the park's boundaries could disrupt the land-acquisition process and threaten the construction timeline, which calls for the $58 million park to open in 2011, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack.
White believes the box is a signal that Svonavec may build his own memorial or attempt to obtain an unreasonable sale price for his parcel, which contains a portion of the "sacred ground" where the Boeing 757 hit the ground and the temporary memorial, set up a few hundred yards away, overlooks the crash site.
"This will gut the project and kill the memorial," White said.
Svonavec said he was not trying to disrupt the negotiations.
"I'm still more than willing to sell to the National Park Service," he said. "If it works out that way, great. But quite a few years have passed and there's nothing close to an agreement reached."
With federal funding slow to materialize, only 57 acres for the park have been purchased. However, a memorial design has been selected and architects and planners are busy finalizing arrangements.
White, who is handling land negotiations for the family group, said discussions are progressing with four other landowners whose parcels constitute the core of the park. Svonavec, he said, has maintained "a steadfast refusal of any discussion of reasonable terms."
The fair-market value of the hilltop land, most of it reclaimed strip-mining fields, is estimated to be $1,000 to $2,000 an acre. Svonavec did not say how much he was seeking.
Svonavec, who leased the Flight 93 land to a coal company prior to 9/11, said he had lost money on leases for land within the memorial area. He has spent $10,000 a month for security since February, when $1 million in post-9/11 federal funding dried up, he said.
"I'm disappointed they feel that way. Believe me, I meant no disrespect," Svonavec said. "This has nothing to do with trying to make a profit. I have to continue to protect the site."
The Park Service, which patrols the crash site weekly, said only two minor incidents of vandalism had been reported in six years. Neither it nor the families believe additional security is warranted.
Joanne Hanley, the National Park Service superintendent in charge of the site, said that in order to hold a groundbreaking in early 2009, land acquisition must be completed by late 2008.
Park-service officials said that the donation box, with its "Flight 93 National Memorial" sign and Web site address unrelated to the National Park Service, confuses visitors who may want to contribute to the permanent memorial.
Hanley said boxes are only placed in a national park when the Park Service or one of its partners has a particular need. In the case of the Flight 93 memorial, she said, there was agreement among families and partners against it.
"We did not feel it was dignified," she said.
Donna Glessner, one of 43 volunteer "ambassadors" who explain the events of 9/11 for busloads of visitors at the site each day, said other volunteers were "aghast" when they discovered the box.
"Visitors who want to give money for the permanent memorial are going to be confused," said Glessner. "We have envelopes for people to send in donations if they want, but we never wanted to turn the site into a place where we were throwing money around."
For more on the Flight 93 National Memorial Fund, visit go.philly.com/93memorial
Contributions are accepted online and by mail: Flight 93 National Memorial Fund, c/o National Park Foundation, Box 17394, Baltimore, MD 21298-9450.