SHANKSVILLE, Pa. (AP) — Discarded smoking material is strongly suspected as the cause of a 2014 fire that struck the Flight 93 National Memorial, according to a report released Saturday.
The National Park Service report also said landscaping mulch that was too close to the building and flammable decking material hastened the spread of the October 2014 fire, which destroyed three of four buildings at the former memorial headquarters.
Several weeks after the fire, state police fire investigators noted that while there was no obvious ignition source, "a cigar/cigarette disposed of in the mulch bed could not be ruled out," the report said.
"The (Serious Accident Investigation Team) strongly suspects that the fire began when discarded smoking material caught the mulch on fire, and then progressed into the deck structure, deck, and the buildings," the park service report said.
The blaze destroyed hundreds of original photographs and items found at the crash site that were linked to the passengers and crew of the plane as well as a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 11, 2001, when hijackers commandeered four planes, flying two into the World Trade Center towers and one into the Pentagon. The passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, going from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, fought back, and the plane crashed in an abandoned strip mine, killing all aboard.
The park service initially said only a small fraction of the 22,708-item collection had been lost. But the report said "at least 8,310 objects and archival materials" were identified as damaged or destroyed in the fire. The material included 330 photographs from eight family members, 250 original oral history interviews on audio cassette tapes, about 300 airplane fragments and thousands of tributes and handwritten comments left by visitors, the report said.
Officials said earlier that they have digital copies of all the photographs lost.
Investigators said a no-smoking policy wasn't effectively implemented or enforced and museum collections were stored in buildings that weren't designed for collections and didn't have fire suppression systems. They also said improper storage of a legal record of collections ownership and a lack of timely documentation made it impossible to account for what was lost.
The destroyed buildings housed administrative and staff offices and conference facilities. The memorial and the visitors center, under construction about 2 miles away, were unaffected by the fire.
Stephen Clark, superintendent of National Parks of Western Pennsylvania, which includes the memorial, told The Tribune-Democrat that many of the corrective actions recommended in the report have already been taken but the loss remains a tragedy.
"We wish it had never happened," Clark said. "We're trying to work through things, learn from this and, together as a park and agency, move forward."
Families of Flight 93 victims said they hope the National Park Service learns from what happened in the fire so such disasters can be prevented.
"The Families of Flight 93 mourn the devastating and irreplaceable loss of family and historic artifacts in the fire," families' spokeswoman Lisa Linden said in a statement.
She said that, given the intensity of the fire, "we remain grateful that no loss of life occurred."
This story has been corrected to show the name is the National Park Service, not the National Parks Service.