NEW ORLEANS – The USS Somerset, which will be christened Saturday, is the last of three Navy ships named for 9/11 attack sites and embodies many reminders of that fateful day.
It can attack in war and rescue people in disaster and it's made with steel from a huge mining crane that became an icon for the Pennsylvania field where one plane came down, said Patrick White, president of the Flight 93 Families organization.
White will be among the speakers Saturday at the Huntington Ingalls Industries shipyard in suburban Avondale when the Somerset, the last of three Navy ships named for 9/11 attack sites, is christened. It is named for the Pennsylvania county where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed after passengers rushed the hijackers in the cockpit, killing all 40 passengers and crew members.
"For anybody that's been at the crash site, that site speaks to you," said White, whose cousin Louis J. Nacke II was on Flight 93. "And my hope for this crew is that this vessel that will be their home will in a similar way speak to them."
The $1.2 billion Somerset is the last of three amphibious landing docks named after the places where planes seized by terrorists crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people.
The 684-foot-long vessel will have a crew of about 360. It's an amphibious transport dock ship, also called a landing platform/dock or LPD, designed to launch helicopters, tilt-rotor aircraft and assault watercraft to bring up to 800 troops to shore.
"It's also able to be first on scene to assist in times of disaster and other crises," with huge generators, surgical suites and the ability to land large equipment, said White, who toured the Somerset and one of its sister ships in January 2011 with about two dozen members of his group.
That's about the same number who will be able to attend the christening. They'll include David and Peggy Beamer, parents of Todd Beamer, whose exhortation "Let's roll!" was the signal for the passengers' action.
The Somerset will be the final ship built at the 74-year-old shipyard in Avondale. "We'll be delivering the ship in the third quarter of 2013," said Irwin F. Edenzon, president of Ingalls Shipbuilding.
Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., based in Newport News, Va., was spun off from defense giant Northrop Grumman Corp. About 5,000 people worked at Avondale when Northrop Grumman announced the split in 2010; about 2,600 work there now, Edenzon said.
Although the shipyard is talking with potential partners, plans to close by the end of 2013 have not changed, he said.
The company's yard in Pascagoula, Miss., will remain open. It's building two LPDs and is negotiating with the Navy to construct a third vessel.
The Somerset's sister vessel, USS New York, entered service in November 2009. Steel from the rubble of the World Trade Center was formed into its 7.5-ton bow stem.
The USS Arlington, built in Pascagoula, is tentatively scheduled for commissioning in March 2013 and will display chunks of steel from the Pentagon in a small tribute room, said Maryellen Baldwin, executive director for the Navy League in Hampton Roads, Va. The room, created with private contributions, will include a 9/11 commemorative quilt and the history of the previous USS Arlington, a 1960s communications relay ship.
The bow stem of the Somerset was made with steel from the bucket of a coal-mining crane called a Marion 7500 walking dragline. It was the larger of two draglines near the crash site, and mining company employees hoisted a big American flag from its boom, more than 150 feet in the air, to honor Flight 93's passengers and crew.
"It was a landmark to help people find the temporary memorial site. It strip-mined much of the memorial landscape. The coal history of the area is, in a sense, being made a part of this ship as well," White said.
Both draglines were bought with plans to include them in the memorial. But, White said, before the families bought the land where they stood, copper wiring was stolen from their inner works and the National Parks Service decided it couldn't afford to preserve them.
Instead, the larger crane's bucket was melted for the bow stem.
He said the ship's steam and lubrication systems include about 200 steel valves made in Somerset County. "So there's a strong physical presence of Somerset County in the vessel," White said.
David Beamer said he and his wife will attend the Somerset's christening to meet and thank some of the people who built the ship or will serve on it.
The ship is a fitting memorial, Beamer said.
"On that day in Somerset County, 40 free people had an opportunity to fight back. ... That ship represents in the days going forward, a defense for our country, a defense for our values, a defense for our freedom."