Flight 93 Memorial Fire Shows Struggle to Keep Artifacts Safe
DEBRA ERDLEY ON OCT 25, 2014
SOURCE: THE PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Oct. 25–The loss of historic artifacts in a fire this month at the Flight 93 National Memorial — including the soot-stained flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 11, 2001 — may be symptomatic of a larger problem afflicting the nation’s park service, some experts believe.
The problem is a lack of resources to adequately protect and preserve these artifacts, experts said Friday as a team of museum professionals and archaeologists from the National Park Service released an inventory of all that was lost in the fire, labeling the toll “significant.”
The flag, soiled by smoke emanating from the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, was presented just last month to the memorial by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who said Flight 93’s passengers saved thousands of lives when they died while preventing the hijackers from reaching their intended target, thought to be the Capitol.
Also lost in the fire were 334 original photographs along with numerous items connected to the plane’s occupants, including a boarding pass, a parking receipt from Newark International Airport where the flight originated, passengers’ identification cards recovered from the crash site, items donated by family and friends of the 40 passengers and crew, and tributes left by visitors at the temporary and permanent memorials.
“These items are irreplaceable, and we are devastated by their loss,” said Jeff Reinbold, superintendent of the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stonycreek Township, Somerset County.
Items destroyed had been assembled in the temporary office and storage area in preparation for a visit later this month from experts preparing exhibits for a permanent visitor’s center scheduled to open in 2015.
Although the office trailers were equipped with fire alarms, smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, Reinbold said there were no sprinkler systems.
“There is no easily accessible water (source). There is not public water at the park,” Reinbold said.
The losses came as no surprise to a group that advocates for the National Park Service.
Three years ago, the National Parks Conservation Association released a lengthy report warning that millions of historic documents and artifacts at parks across the country were at risk.
“The issue here is really that the park service lacks the resources to adequately preserve and protect our antiquities because Congress has failed to invest in this. … The park service has had a lot of trouble not only protecting, but cataloging these resources because they lack the staff,” said John Garder, budget and appropriations director for the association.
The conservation and protection of historic documents and artifacts is an ongoing concern at state, federal and nonprofit institutions across the nation, said Lesley Langa, director of the 2014 Heritage Health Information Survey for Heritage Preservation, an independent public policy organization dedicated to preserving the nation’s cultural, historic and scientific heritage.
Garder said the National Park Service, whose budget has declined by more than 18 percent since 2002 even as new sites came online, is struggling.
Mike Nardolilli, president of the C&O Canal Trust, a nonprofit that supports the C&O Canal National Park, said preservation is a concern for his group
The park, which has a library in Hagerstown, Md., full of historic documents detailing the construction of the canal, is “stuffed to the gills” and staffed by volunteers.
“I believe the park service is doing a remarkable job, but it’s a question of resources,” Nardolilli said, adding that his group is storing artifacts because the park service lacks adequate space.
“There are a number of parks where there is really inadequate storage of cultural resources,” Garder said.
In a recent survey, his group found that collections of historic artifacts at one out of four park service sites were not in good condition.
One example of that kind of threat was at Little Bighorn National Battlefield Monument in Montana, where nearly 150,000 documents and other historic objects were not being adequately cared for, Garder said.
“They were stored in an insufficient, outdated room in the 1952 visitors center that had all kinds of problems. They stored them in a basement that was damp, and in heavy rain, water was running down the walls. … And that is not unusual in historic sites that the park service is protecting,” Garder added.
The collection was moved to a facility in Arizona three years ago until a permanent repository is available at the battlefield.
Asked about such claims, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, whose district includes the Flight 93 Memorial, would not address the preservation issues, saying only that he remains “committed to supporting this national park and the people and families who inspired it through actions such as my legislation, which secured a Congressional Gold Medal for the site.”
The Gold Medal, along with a number of other items stored off-site, escaped damage.