The Blog

A Site to Remember

No design debate. No media noise. Just quiet visitors honoring Flight 93. Lots of them.

11:00 PM, Feb 28, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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IT'S 10:32 ON SATURDAY MORNING. The temperature hovers around 35 degrees, and the wind fans a hard, beating rain across the snow-covered field where Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. Donna Wilt has just put on her badge and pulled her information kit together when three carloads of visitors pull up. She tugs her knit ski-cap over her ears and goes to work. Mrs. Wilt is one of Flight 93's Goodwill Ambassadors.

IN ITS 9/11 MEMORIAL MODE, the media have fixed their attention on the World Trade Center site in New York, for understandable reasons. But this rural town has watched a different kind of memorial-making take shape: the steady, intense pilgrimages of visitors who travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles--Shanksville is far off the beaten path--to look out on the crash site. The ambassadors are Shanksville's own stewards of the site and of its pilgrims.

It all started on the tragic day itself, when hundreds of outsiders from the FBI and other federal agencies descended on the small town (population 245). Local residents went to work trying to feed, house and help them. "We had to take care of those people," remembers Mrs. Wilt. As the investigation wrapped up toward the end of September, one of the townspeople set up a small memorial in her front yard. She awoke one morning to see a bouquet with a card that read: "Thanks for saving our lives.--The Capitol employees." It was the first of a stream of tributes left by visitors, many remembering the way Flight 93's passengers crossed that small deadly space and thwarted the hijackers' mission.

Soon after, the county set up a temporary memorial a quarter-mile from the crash site: a 60-foot-long stretch of chain-link fence, two flagpoles (for the American and Pennsylvania flags) and a small stone placard with the names of the dead. As visitors began coming, they left things behind: flags, helmets, firemen's jackets, baseball caps, flowers, messages. And as the crowds grew, Shanksville residents who stopped by the memorial noticed that visitors didn't know what they were looking at.

So one Sunday in January 2002, Donna Glessner stood up in church and announced that she was going to start a group to care for the memorial and its visitors. Seventeen people came forward, becoming the first Goodwill Ambassadors. Today there are 40, and they watch over the memorial during daylight hours, seven days a week. They range in age from 20 to 79. Many are husband-and-wife teams working their shifts in pairs.

They answer questions about the memorial, about Flight 93, about where to get a meal and how to find the highway again. They also act as groundskeepers: "We try to be good caretakers, to never let a flag touch the ground," says Mary Alice Mankamyer. "You always keep a shovel and salt in your trunk; in the summer we bring water for the visitors."

During the summer the crowds surge, with as many as 300 visitors at a time. In the winter, it's more of a steady trickle. "There are times when I come here and I'm the only one," says Sue Strohm. "And I just stand there and look out over the field and think about them. . . . I guess if that was my family member that had died, I would want somebody to care enough to be here, to watch over them."

The ambassadors seem to be equal parts tour guide and therapist. "People want to tell you their stories that often have nothing to do with Flight 93," Mrs. Glessner says. "They want to tell us where they were on Sept. 11 or about a loved one in New York or Washington." Mrs. Strohm adds: "Most of the time I find myself just listening as people go through their experiences." "I always have Kleenexes with me," notes Mrs. Mankamyer. "Sometimes people will ask you to pray with them." She obliges.

Prayer and faith are intertwined with the temporary memorial. Chuck Wagner, an ambassador, told a local paper last September that "we consider the crash site hallowed ground and will always keep it that way." Barbara Black, of the county's historical and genealogical society, added: "Perhaps the hand of God had this happen here because he knew we would take care of it." Shanksville residents see much of God's work in Flight 93. Rose and Carl Sprock told me that had the plane crashed a few seconds later, it might have hit the school. The Oct. 22, 2001, Tribune-Democrat reported that workers found a nearly unscratched Bible amid the ruins of the crash site.

And it is faith that led to the creation of the ambassadors. "I'm not an impulsive person," says Mrs. Glessner. "But I really feel like the idea was planted in my mind by God. . . . I had no doubt in my mind that it was the right thing, and I haven't doubted it since." The ambassadors come from several faiths but almost invariably describe their work as a ministry. Next to the Pennsylvania flag at the memorial is a 15-foot cross.