USS Somerset at sea: Pa. county’s leaders experience namesake warship, share Flight 93 story
The Tribune-Democrat January 27, 2023
SOMERSET, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — The crew of the Navy's USS Somerset have been frequent guests for years in the county for which their ship is named — attending Flight 93 memorial ceremonies, touring landmarks and even picking bushels of corn in 2021 for a local food bank.
It's part of a mission to forge a deep bond with the county whose flag they sail under, Navy Lt. Edwin Handley said late last year.
This month, several Somerset County community leaders and Flight 93 passengers' relatives returned the favor, going to sea alongside its 350 sailors and officers.
"That warship and its crew live and breathe the story of Flight 93 and Somerset County — and this was our first chance to understand what that's like for them when they are at work," said Somerset County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ron Aldom.
Aldom boarded the vessel in San Diego with Somerset County President Commissioner Gerald Walker; Steve Clark, the National Park Service's superintendent of western Pennsylvania parks; Janet Vatavuk, widow of the late Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk; and Pat White and Deborah Borza, relatives of Flight 93 passengers.
It was a chance to see the USS Somerset's local ties on display, including Flight 93 artifacts, borough and township street signs, and flags.
"Even the mess hall is called the Summit Diner," Aldom said — the same name as a restaurant on North Center Avenue in Somerset Borough.
The locals toured just about every inch of the ship during a week of Navy training, stood on the flight deck as a helicopter touched down and departed, and witnessed the crew refuel the ship at sea, Aldom said. The group joined the crew for meals — even serving up breakfast, lunch and dinner during "mess" each day.
"They wanted us to understand what they do — and it was a truly amazing experience," he said.
Clark said Navy officials extended an offer last fall to visit the USS Somerset, first commissioned in 2014. He said he welcomed the chance.
"My personal goal was to do what I could to bring the spirit of Flight 93 and western Pennsylvania to the sailors aboard the Somerset," said Clark, who delivered a presentation in the chapel about the history of the Flight 93 crash, the creation of the memorial and the role that Somerset County played.
"We realize the vast majority have never been to Somerset County — even though it's clear each of them understand fully that the ship's namesake honors one of the 9/11 attack sites," he said.
Aldom said he and Walker also spoke to sailors during a leadership program. But often, it was the moments that didn't need words that were among the most cherished experiences, he said.
Clark recalled standing in awe on the bridge while the captain and his team navigated the 19,000-ton ship through a narrow passage to a Long Beach dock.
Aldom recalled watching sailors work side by side to accomplish tasks — and feeling that Somerset County and the Flight 93 story were well-represented by the ship and its crew.
"Virtually everywhere you looked, it was a constant reminder of the Flight 93 story," Clark said.
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