United 93: an interview with Red Cross volunteer Patti Anewalt

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

Unidicisettembre is offering its readers today the personal account of Red Cross volunteer Patti Anewalt who was among the first responders of flight United 93 which crashed in rural Pennsylvania after a revolt of the passengers and the crew stopped the terrorists from reaching their target.

We would like to thank Patti Anewalt for her kindness and willingness to help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on 9/11?

Patti Anewalt: I was based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I worked and I still work for hospice, we take care of dying patients and their families. I’m also the Director of the Pathways Center for Grief & Loss. We support not only those grieving the death of a patient my hospice cared for, but we also support anyone in the community grieving a death. This includes death by suicide, accident, overdose, or even homicide. I had been active in recent years with American Red Cross and I did a lot of crisis response work at local level, also with firefighters, police, EMS; when there’s a crisis I helped coordinate the debriefing afterwards on how they were coping with the tragedy. I had said to my supervisor “The next time something happens nationally I’d like to be able to go.” On that day I was at work, totally clueless about the news at it was unfolding. I didn’t know what had happened until my supervisor stepped into my office and said “You need to come and look at the television”, where a lot of people had gathered around one of the televisions and we saw the second plane hit.

I had already planned to go to lunch that day with my boss and seeing what was going on I told her while we were having lunch “I’m going to get a call”, and I did. The Red Cross was rather disorganized initially on the afternoon of 9/11, so my first call from them was “Can you do a press conference before you go to New York?” to which I replied “I don’t know if I’m going to New York, no one has called me”. By the end of the day I was reassigned to Pennsylvania. I was initially disappointed that I wasn’t going to New York, but now in hindsight with all the illnesses and deaths that took place from all that was in the air I’m glad I was sent to Shanksville.

I was in Shanksville by the 13th for the next two weeks. I worked at the morgue, at the crash site and with the families, and we coordinated a memorial service with them. On the first Friday we had the prayer service outside the county court house in Somerset. All the families drove there because the air space was initially closed. I talked with others who had responded to a lot of these national disasters and they explained this one was unique. Usually families immediately descend to the location, but in this case that didn’t happen because the air space was closed. So it was a surreal experience for everybody.

Undicisettembre: How would you describe the crash site? Did anything in particular strike you?

Patti Anewalt: They called “the hot zone” and it was off limits to everyone except those involved in the search for any and all fragments from the crash. Some of the Red Cross vehicles, called ERVs, Emergency Response Vehicles, got closer to bring coffee and food, but everyone else could only see it from a distance. It was smoldering and you could see clouds of smoke coming up.

At the time a memorial area was set up for the families to bring mementos of passengers who died in the crash. This was within sight of where the plane went down but a distance away. I have been back there twice and it looks dramatically different from when I was there right after 9/11. Now they have a large boulder that marks where the plane had gone down.

Undicisettembre: What did you do in those two weeks you spent there?

Patti Anewalt: I traveled to Somerset County with another Disaster Mental Health Red Cross volunteer. He was a psychologist who lived a little further North and East of me. The two of us had twelve hours shifts. Depending on the day, we were assigned to go to different places. The majority of my time was spent by the morgue and there were people from all over the country there to do body identification. Until they found the black box, which took a couple of days, all they did was to mark with different color codes what they were finding because it was a seven mile radius in the field and the woods around it.

At the morgue I was near to the food truck where people who were working in the morgue would come out to get something to eat or to drink. I talked with them about what they were struggling with. They would obtain information from the families about their loved ones. One thing that stuck with me was how one passenger played a wind instrument; their mandible -- the shape of their jaw -- was shaped differently, so the forensic examiners were able to match that description of the passenger with the body part that they found.

I remember one person telling me they found a driver’s license in a passenger’s pocket. For a few years after that if I’d flew anywhere I’d put my license in my pocket in case the plane went down.

Many of the workers talked about calling home, needing to connect with their families, and wanting to know what the news was reporting about 9/11. This was rather surreal and has happened to me when responding to other tragedies. Because we were on site so promptly after the incident occurs, and working long hours, we were not aware of what was going on in the rest of the world. And it was a scary time back then because three other planes had hit targets and we didn’t know if we were under attack and what else might have happened. It was a weird feeling being where everybody else was talking about and yet know less than everybody else, because we were there, working and had little access to current news.

Undicisettembre: What made this case unique in comparison to others you’ve been involved with?

Patti Anewalt: I’ve responded to a lot of local tragedies, but not a lot of national ones. One of things that was an eye opener for me was that there were seventy-two different organizations coming together and within a day or two everything was set up like a business: we had computers, telephone lines, desks. Everything was set up and organized. I’ve always said the Red Cross is kind of like the Army: you do what you are supposed to do and you remain focused on just that. It’s very organized and that’s how they keep the things straight, everybody has a role and that’s what you are expected to do.

It was amazing to see all these different organizations come together to set up and work within the community too. They set up a church somewhere nearby where they would also provide some education to local pastors who wanted to know how to support the community. The community was also very affected by this. I remember talking to some kids who lived in Shanksville. They saw the second plane on TV and they were consoling each other saying “Oh, thank goodness, at least we don’t live anywhere near New York City. Nothing will happen to us” and all of a sudden they heard and felt the whole school shake and a loud boom. When they looked out of the window they could see smoke from the plane when it went down. It was all they kept talking about.

Undicisettembre: Do you think the media pressure had an impact of the job you guys were doing?

Patti Anewalt: Not so much on mine. We were briefed everyday on what to expect and who was going to be visiting the crash site. We heard rumors the President would be coming, so suddenly they paved the entire area, then it turned out it was the Vice President who visited. Press conferences were periodically held as well. It was interesting to see what and how the coroner, who was just a local county coroner, addressed during these press conferences. He was responsible to oversee the morgue and everything else that was going on. He did a fabulous job addressing the media, as some information was confidential.

Media was obnoxious, as they often can be. They had to protect the hot zone and the memorial site with mounted police, as there were media people sneaking through the woods trying to get closer. I’ve seen that in other community tragedies as well, they will do anything they can to get in there and get the scoop.

Undicisettembre: While you guys were working there for such a long time was anyone having doubts about the fact that a plane had crashed there?

Patti Anewalt: Doubts? No! Almost immediately they started finding parts of the plane and proof -- there was absolutely no question that the plane had gone down there. People heard it and saw it, a whole plane went down there and it shook everything around there. There was no question what had happened and that it was that plane. As time went on they also found proof of the passengers who had been on the plane.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your everyday life?

Patti Anewalt: That’s an interesting question because we are all struggling with COVID-19 right now. I did a national webinar last week and my role was to talk about grief and the pandemic. I started off by saying it reminds me of 9/11 because all of a sudden everybody understood grief in some respect. After 9/11 everybody was horrified at what happened and how many people had so tragically died. People were sad, they were angry, they were proud of their country, there were all kind of grief reactions. In these long months of living during this pandemic I don’t believe there isn’t a person anywhere in the world who doesn’t understand grieving all the changes they have endured because their lives are so completely different right now.

And in another way, over the years after 9/11, it started to change people’s understanding about grief. People used to always talk about closure and how they get closure after something tragic happens. Now that news is such a prevalent part of everyone’s life most people realize we don’t really have closure. We always remember, and from time to time we continue to have grief bursts when we are reminded or experience something that triggers our grief. As the years has gone by and the media covers the memorials that take place on the anniversaries it’s helped people understand we don’t just get over them and experience closure, we continue to re-grieve at times throughout our lifetime.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories according to which 9/11 was an inside job and that no plane crashed in Shanksville?

Patti Anewalt: That’s ridiculous! It’s fake news, there’s no basis for it, and there’s so much proof that it did occur! People who have conspiracy theories seem to have too much time on their hands. It’s the same with COVID: follow science and follow the facts! I don’t have a lot of patience for that, I would say. And they obviously haven’t been to Shanksville to see the museum there. It contains many of the artifacts they found proving the passengers went down on that plane, showing parts of the plane. Most heartbreaking of all are the recordings of the passengers calling loved ones, describing what was happening and their plans to confront the terrorists.

Undicisettembre: How would you compare the crisis after 9/11 to the crisis for COVID-19 the country is living now?

Patti Anewalt: It’s hard to compare because there are so many more losses. In both situations everybody from all over the world is paying attention to it, is aware of and affected by it. So those are the similarities however there are far more differences in that the pandemic impacts every single person around the globe in a personal way and many thousands more have died. September 11 didn’t have that kind of direct impact around the world.

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