Flight 93 Ambassadors honor 9/11 heroes


By Jackie Campbell*
September 9, 2011

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Donna Glessner was watching shocking television footage of planes hitting the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, when she heard a tremendous noise. Her house shook, and her windows rattled.

What Glessner did not know was that United Airlines Flight 93 had crashed about three miles from her home in rural Shanksville, Pa. Glessner’s life and the lves of many in the area changed forever that day. So did the lives of the families of the 40 passengers and crew on that plane, who joined together to try to take back control from the terrorists.

Immediately after the crash, United Methodist clergy and laity from the region, as well as staff from an adjacent Christian retreat center, Camp Allegheny, ministered to the families and countless mourners who flocked to the area.

“People were sort of aimlessly walking around,” recalled the Rev. Ron Emery, then pastor of tiny Shanksville United Methodist Church and a spiritual caregiver for the Flight 93 families who came to the site.

Glessner saw a need to help visitors understand what had happened at the crash site. In January 2002, she decided to recruit volunteers and asked Emery if she could make an announcement to their congregation. 

‘The right thing to do’

One of the 42 ambassadors, who include 12 United Methodists, speaks to visitors at the United Airlines Flight 93 crash site near Shanksville, Pa. A web-only file photo courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.

“I knew immediately that this was the right thing to do, and I was at a place in my life where I had the time to put into this,” Glessner said. “I didn’t know … how much time would be required or how long our services would be needed here.

“I never looked back, and I never second-guessed this decision. I always felt this real peace that this was the right thing to do here,” she said as she stood at the site nearly a decade later.

After the invitation to volunteer went out to the church, 17 people showed up at the site for training. “Word had spread in the community, so they were not all United Methodist,” Glessner added. “But the bulk of them were from our church. After that first training, many more came forward.” Today there are about 40 ambassadors.

An early volunteer who is still on the job was the Rev. Marlin Miller, a retired elder now serving as associate pastor at Meyersdale United Methodist Church. He also trained as a counselor for the families of Flight 93 after the crash. “We first were just here to welcome anyone who came and (to) tell them how to find their way out when they got into the place. We’re kind of in the boonies, so to speak,” he said. 

In a field near Shanksville, Pa., a makeshift memorial in 2006 honors the bravery of the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93. A web-only file photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy.

“For the first two years at the temporary memorial site, we sat in our car or truck or whatever until someone came, and then we’d get out and welcome them. Then we developed a book with pictures and began with the story,” explained Miller.

Glessner said she and many of the other ambassadors, regardless of their faith, feel this is their mission. “We meet people from all walks of life here that are hurting in many ways, often unrelated to 9/11. For them to be able to come here and unburden their soul to you, it’s a privilege to talk with them, and you leave refreshed.

“I’m not a person that runs around quoting Scripture, but one Scripture that has really been applicable to our group here is from Proverbs: ‘He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.’ I felt a great healing, and I still feel it here,” she said.

“If you think the world’s in a bad way, and society is going down the chute, you just have to spend time here. … It’s a wonderful country that we live in, and people really are good. And to find that out was a very healing thing for me, especially right after 9/11 when everyone felt such anxiety,” Glessner said.

National Park Service site

In March 2002, legislation was unanimously approved to make the crash location a National Park Service site. A planning office opened the next year, and the park service bought shirts for the ambassadors and trained them. By 2006, park rangers had taken over scheduling the volunteers.

Don Landis, Glessner’s father, was one of the first ambassadors, and he’s still volunteering for one shift a week. "I started because I felt there was a need for us, and I still think that’s the main purpose." Landis said the volunteers expected to serve until they were no longer needed, but added that the National Park Service, which now cares for the site, says it couldn’t operate without volunteers.

“Whenever you’re my age – I’m 88 years old – you don’t want to plan too much, (but) as long as I’m well and can do it, I’m going to be up here, doing something,” he said.

Families of victims of United Airlines Flight 93 visit a memorial near the site. A UMNS file photo by the Rev. Thomas St. Clair.

Keith Newlin, superintendent for the National Park Service in western Pennsylvania, said the actions of the passengers aboard Flight 93 changed history because those passengers saved the U.S. Capitol. 

The people aboard Flight 93 were “citizen soldiers,” he said. “Just think about it. In 35 minutes, they took the information they got from talking to relatives and other people on cell phones, and they took action. They were there. Some of these people were on recreational trips, some on business trips, but they took action.”

The site where they died, he added, is “sacred ground. It’s like any other battlefield we have in this country. There was bloodshed here; there was death; there was destruction, and it was for a cause. There was heroism; there was courage; and there was no thought given to it. That is why this is sacred ground.”

Glessner has served along with Flight 93 family members on the advisory committee for the design of the memorial that will be dedicated in 2011.

1.5 million visitors

“We know that well over 1.5 million people have visited here through the years,” she said. “At this time of the year, we’re running between 5,000 and 7,000 people per week.”

Visitors to the site often leave messages. One of Glessner’s volunteer jobs is to read these messages and record what she thinks the families would want to know. 

“People have a lot of strong feelings when they’re here. I think they’re brought back very quickly to the day – Sept. 11th. Their feelings of that day come back to them, and they’re often surprised at the level of emotion they feel. 

“It is a place where tears are shed, definitely. People sometimes try to hide that behind dark glasses, but you see the tears.”

Everyone in the United States feels a connection with the people of Flight 93, Glessner said, “because they were just like you and I. … And faced with this extraordinary circumstance, they respond in this extraordinary way that can be very inspirational to people in all kinds of situations.

“That’s what I think is the power of this site. While it is their final resting place — and we’re charged with caring for that and making it a place where people can come to pay their respects — it’s also a place where you can be inspired by that story.”

She noted that it "makes you examine your priorities and realize how fragile life is and how much every day counts. It’s a place that makes you examine what’s important to you and how you’re spending your life.”

Miller said serving as an ambassador “certainly lines up with the opportunity to share the love and light of Christ by caring and empathizing with people and crying with them sometimes, too.”

As he put it, “We didn’t ask for this; of course they didn’t either, but it’s an opportunity for us to show some Christian love.”

*Campbell is communications director for the Western Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org .