Sue Strohm was at her church, Shanksville United Methodist, one Sunday in early 2002, when a fellow church member, Donna Glessner, stood up with a call to action. People were coming to the crash site near Shanksville, and there was no one to greet them, no one to give them directions or help them find their way in and out on country roads.
Glessner says she believed there needed to be a human presence there, someone to help visitors feel less lost. A number of people in her church agreed, including Strohm.
Soon after, on a cold, wet January day, 17 people gathered near the crash site.
Terry Shaffer, who was Shanksville’s fire chief, briefed them on what was known so far about what had happened at the old strip mine. It was Terry’s wife, Kathie Shaffer, and Glessner, who together had come up with the idea of gathering volunteers.
Barbara Black, then curator at the Somerset Historical Center, had been tasked with caring for tributes people were leaving and found herself staying at the crash site for hours.
Strangers would arrive there, full of grief and questions.
It was more than any one person could manage.
So the churchgoers stepped up. Volunteers were given a folder with a page or two – a list of officials’ names and a small map so they could point out directions and guide visitors to gas stations and places to eat.
“Other than directions, what we did in the beginning, really, was we listened to people’s stories,” Strohm says. “Where they were. What had happened to them on Sept. 11th.”
The group originally planned to be at the site only on weekends. That quickly changed to daily shifts of a couple hours apiece. Any longer than that, at once, was too tasking.
The mountaintop weather in a post-mining landscape would take its toll. It was only a parking area, the chain-link fence of tributes that became the temporary memorial, and the crater in the distance – no shelter.
Strohm and others would sit in their vehicles, ready to greet and guide what they expected would be a handful of visitors here and there. Instead, they would stand for hours, often in the exact same space, starting the story over again as soon as they’d finished it.
Soon, they each had a notebook with specifics. New information and slips of paper would be photocopied for the group and tucked inside; outdated information would be crossed out. The notebooks kept growing as they and others learned more about the passengers and crew who fought back against terrorists.
“By the next summer, we had a book with pictures,” Strohm says. “You’d get out of your car to where the ambassador was before you and you never moved the entire time. People just kept coming.”
There were busloads by then.
“I remember a day it was raining and seven busloads came over the hill,” she says. “We were getting a lot of people who had connections to one of the other places, and they were telling us their stories. I can remember one lady telling me about losing her brother in the World Trade Center.”
Strohm would go home to her father, who lived with her near Lake Stonycreek, and he would have a mug of hot cocoa ready.
“What can you say to these people? You just listen, because that’s what they need,” she says.
Within a year, they had grown from 17 to 37, still hardly enough to manage the increasingly steady flow of visitors. Strohm offered to take the morning shift on Christmas Day 2002, and she took a book because she thought, for sure, that no one would show up. She was wrong.
There on weekdays, weekends and holidays, they had become a necessity, ambassadors for a community of people reacting to tragedy in any way they could, even when that meant simply being there, listening.
Of course, they weren’t formally called ambassadors in the very beginning – and they weren’t volunteers of the National Park Service.
It was September 2002 when President George W. Bush signed the Flight 93 National Memorial Act, creating a new national park and authorizing the building of a national memorial at the site the volunteers were shepherding. It was September 2011 when the first features of the memorial were completed, and it was September 2015 when the Visitor Center Complex was dedicated.
It’s been nearly 20 years since that frigid January day, and through all the changes – the landscape, the knowledge of what had happened in the sky above, the interpretive and commemorative spaces – the Flight 93 Ambassadors have been on the ground, collecting, sharing and keeping the stories that unfold there.
Now they are official National Park Service volunteers, part of the Volunteers-in-Parks program, and they number between 40 and 50 at any given time. Some of the early ambassadors, such as beloved former Shanksville Mayor Ernest Stull, have passed away, but the core group members have done all they can to find others who feel drawn to the site and its many stories.
‘It was so close’
By the time Sharon Custer became an ambassador in 2005 – a dear friend had invited her to join in advance of the fifth anniversary and the memorial design announcement – the group had developed more organized training. The shared notes had grown to a full box. They had a shelter on site, but no heat.
“I said yes without even thinking about it, because I really was interested,” Custer says. “I had always gone back to the site several times a month.”
Custer had been working at a nearby insurance office, now the home of The Lincoln Cafe, on Sept. 11, 2001. She heard the plane hit the ground. Even before she became a Flight 93 Ambassador, she would attend the annual memorial services; she’s been to all of them.
“It was so close to where I was,” Custer says. “The story was inspiring, to know what happened and how they reacted – the whole idea of what the people on the airplane were able to accomplish in such a short time – and how close it could have been to somewhere else.
“What I always found interesting was that people were coming to this tiny spot from so far away. Like Sue said, there was that notebook with the artist’s drawings of what this memorial was going to look like. To look at those and go through each of those pages, from groundbreaking to dedication, was something I really appreciated, and I was there for each phase of it.”
Over the years, during her regular Sunday afternoon shift at the Wall of Names, she’s grown close to many of the other ambassadors, come to treasure family members of the passengers and crew and connected with visitors from all over the world.
“I watch the way people react to the memorial and see generations of people come: kids who weren’t born when it happened, parents who were teenagers, grandparents,” she says. “People just want to shake your hand. They want to be part of it.”
‘We consider all 40 to be heroes’
Mel Blough, a retiree from Davidsville who has been an ambassador for six years, has had a similar experience: connection.
“I remember one time we had to choose someone to talk about,” he says. “Mrs. (Sandy) Bradshaw is the one I chose. Shortly after that, at one of the observances, I met her mother. It was late on a Saturday evening. She was coming back from laying some flowers at the wall. It was just her and I. That was a moment I will never forget.”
Nearly 20 years later, there’s still more to learn and share. There’s still work for the ambassadors to carry out. Strohm says she often begins her shift by choosing one of the 40 who is less well-known and makes a point of telling his or her story.
“Now, if they take their time in the Visitor Center, they can glean a lot of information,” she says. “As an ambassador, you can expand on that. There are 40 people. They’ve usually only heard about a couple. For me, it’s Hilda (Marcin). That lady was amazing. She worked so long, doing difficult jobs and came to this country, not speaking any English, and managed to graduate high school with her class. But there are others, too. I could go through a lot of them.”
When he shared senior flight attendant Lorraine Bay’s story, Ambassador Paul Donati, of Windber, says he always pictured her as someone fun loving, someone always smiling, someone you’d want as a cousin. He’s since met one of Lorraine’s cousins and learned more about her good-natured hospitality. He’s even tried his hand at making Lorraine’s personal recipe for her signature lemon squares.
“All of their stories matter,” Donati says. “We consider all 40 to be heroes.”
A former letter carrier in Johnstown, Donati got involved because an enthusiastic woman on his route was always talking about how fulfilling her volunteer work as an ambassador was. At first, he started out by offering to transcribe oral histories – there are more than 750 of them – and eventually, when he retired, he decided the friendly woman he talked with had the right idea. She was Sue Strohm.
Over the past few years, he’s developed an even deeper appreciation for what happened at the site and a sense of duty to ensure that the personal storytelling continues.
“I had a visitor last week say something to me that I never really thought of before,” he says. “If you were old enough to be aware in September 2001, you felt fear because you just didn’t know. We have that remembrance. Younger people don’t. If you’re an older person, you have that level of understanding. It’s important for us to do whatever we can to pass that down.”
A Junior Ranger Program helps. So does having ambassadors on hand when buses of school children arrive. But active ambassadors also have worked to find others, most successfully by one-to-one outreach, to make sure the work carries on.
And their work is invaluable, according to Stephen Clark, superintendent of the National Parks of Western Pennsylvania, which includes the Flight 93 National Memorial.
“We would not be able to engage these hundreds of thousands of visitors without this incredible, dedicated, passionate group of men and women,” he says. “They take so much pride in their post, it almost becomes part of who they are.
“They say the typical length of a volunteer – at any organization – is five years,” he adds. “Our ambassadors predate the memorial in this case. They were there from the very beginning, whether it was taking lasagna to state troopers or helping visitors who were coming, wanting to see something, and being disappointed because they couldn’t find their way. The ambassadors formed on their own because of the pride in their nation and in this story.”
In his 35 years in the National Park Service, Clark says he has seen how important volunteers can be. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City has a Docent Program. The Volunteers-in-Parks program is offered servicewide for those who want to contribute their time to a national park.
“Volunteers across the National Park Service are vital,” he says. “At Flight 93, it’s just different. Talk about the backbone of this memorial. They are part of our NPS family.”
The ambassadors are always open to the next family members in line. Anymore, the notebooks, boxes and binders are distilled down to six training modules. New ambassadors are required to take at least the first two to know the basics and guide visitors in the right direction of a national memorial that now includes the completed memorial and Memorial Plaza, Visitor Center and the Tower of Voices, a monument and 93-foot-tall musical instrument installed and dedicated in September 2020. Ambassadors-in-training also shadow seasoned ambassadors before serving their first two-hour shifts.
Ambassadors for the families
A year ago, Strohm decided it was time to go through that original ambassador box, an overwhelming task.
“I learned it as it happened,” she says. “I’m not sure how I would have reacted if I’d walked in, not knowing, and someone handed me that.”
The old newspaper clippings and notes represent a journey for the ambassadors – but not the most powerful part of it.
“I love history, as anybody around me knows,” Strohm says. “For me, that was history in the making – that’s how I started. But then we started to meet family. It wasn’t very long after that when it was more like, these (family members) can’t be here, and they’ve lost somebody they love.
“It became more about getting to know these people,” she says. “It is much more an emotional connection now than intellectual or historical. Even now, when I’m telling the story and I look out and there’s somebody crying, it’s all I can do to not break down myself. The emotion doesn’t go away. It’s still there. It’s always there.”
The connection is so powerful, it has become almost a personal mission for many of the ambassadors to care for the final resting place of the passengers and crew and share their stories, the same way they might if it were their own family members lost that day, Custer says.
“I sort of put myself in their place and think about what I would feel like, if it were my family member’s grave,” she says. “I think about what they might be feeling to know somebody is there who cares about their family, especially when other people are interested in knowing their (family members’) story.”