United 93: an interview with Red Cross volunteer Victoria Connor

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

Unidicisettembre is offering its readers today the personal account of Red Cross volunteer Victoria Connor who was among the first responders of flight United 93 after it crashed in rural area close to Shanksville, Pennsylvania after a revolt of the passengers and the crew stopped the terrorists from reaching their target.

We would like to thank Victoria Connor for her kindness and willingness to help.

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

Victoria Connor: On 9/11 right around 9 o’clock in the morning me and two of my colleagues were visiting the York County fairgrounds, one of the oldest fairs that operates in the country. I worked for the American Red Cross and the night before, on September 10, a little boy was injured on a ride and was brought to our Red Cross first aid station. We wanted to speak to the workers to hear more about what had happened. Tragically, he died later that evening at the hospital.

While we were just pulling into the parking lot of the fairground, we heard on the radio the news of the first plane hitting the tower. At first, we thought it was a small plane accident. It was a beautiful, beautiful day. We got out of the car and as we were walking to the building where the first aid station was located, we started hearing the buzz of people talking. The fair was not open; it was just the workers setting up. We got this terrible sense that whatever they were hearing was not good.

We finished our conversation with the workers, and all was fine with them. As an aside, what was even more tragically sad is that the little boy happened to be the son of a friend of mine, but because we keep the cases so confidential, I did not know it until two weeks later when I returned from the assignment. Because they are a well-known family here, the story ended up being in the newspapers.

We got back into our vehicle to go back to the Chapter, which is what we call the building where we were working, and at that point the second plane had crashed. Our Emergency Services Manager had worked for the County Government before and he knew immediately it was no accident, when one plane hits it can be an accident, when there is more than one it is much more serious than that and his first thought was that this was a terrorist attack.

When we went back to our office, our team, there were about seventeen of us that worked together there, huddled around a small television trying to make sense of what was going on and it became quite clear that this was no accident, based on the news reports. My boss had been a career Red Cross worker, he was the Executive Director of the York County Chapter and he had worked for the Red Cross since Vietnam, he was also part of the Aviation Incident Response team, a group of highly trained people who were assigned to work by the month. If a maritime, rail, or aviation mass casualty incident would happen during your month you would be deployed to that location to manage the Red Cross relief efforts. He was immediately contacted because of our proximity to New York to be assigned there but when the plane crashed in Pennsylvania, he was redirected to go to manage the Red Cross operation in Somerset County.

I had only joined the American Red Cross eight months before. In the Red Cross, the ratio of volunteers to paid staff is thirty-six volunteers to every one person paid to do the work. The organization is driven by the work of volunteers. To become a disaster relief worker, you must go through many levels of training, in addition to learning CPR and first aid, you must go through a series of different courses and demonstrate your expertise. When 9/11 occurred, I was still learning about the organization, but I had a wide variety of skills. So, a few days later after my boss was deployed to Somerset, he called and asked if I would be able to come to work on the events team. Without hesitating I replied, “Of course I would!”. I quickly had to make sure my husband, who also worked full time, would be able to take care of our two young children while I would be away. We worked that all out and within the next 24-hours I packed a bag, got into my car and I drove to the location.

When you get sent or are deployed on a disaster relief assignment you do not know what resources will be available on arrival, so you typically bring your “go-kit”- a duffel bag with your Red Cross vest, your credentials, paper, pens, a stapler, and so on, things you need just to be up and running to start working immediately. When I arrived at the relief operations headquarters which was in a community room in a church, I checked in and I went to from table to table to be acclimated to what was going on by the different team leads including getting new identification that would be required to get from place to place because it was high security and a health screening.

The Red Cross role in disasters like this was to coordinate with National Transportation Safety Board, with the airline, local government and with local responders; help them best support the families and support the investigators, and emergency services personnel. The volunteers were helping all of that and because it can be incredibly emotionally and physically exhausting. There is also mental healthcare, medical care and spiritual care for the families and the workers. The Red Cross will also aid if requested to coordinate memorial services as we did in this case.

After 9/11 the whole country was shut down as far as flying and we ended up having two memorial services days apart because not all the families were able to attend the first one due to flying restrictions. That meant two different connections with personnel from the White House to represent our country had also to be organized. It was a crazy logistical thing, and still some of the families were not able to come at all. There is one family who had to call in so they could hear the services over the phone and see them on TV.

The services were held on a golf course that overlooked, from far away, the place where the plane crashed, it is called Indian Lake Lodge. The first one was held outdoors, under a tent, the view overlooked the lake and beyond the lake was the crash site. The second one ended up being held indoors because the weather turned, and it was a completely different experience. Each were equally solemn and healing events that we created as best as we could. It was intense and personal. The services were non-denominational; all religions were represented. We also gave everyone a little white box with a ribbon on top and inside the box was a vial of soil that was sifted by volunteers to represent their loved ones, because they had nothing to take away.

The families stayed at Seven Springs Mountain Resort and they were kind of sequestered there. There were albums put together of all the tributes that were coming in from people around the world like cards and many different things.

It was difficult for anybody to get near the crash scene, because it was a crime scene; but people would put flags and flowers along the fences, just like in New York. For me it was an honor just being there to convey to the families how much they were supported and how their family members really were heroes for what they did, because it was clear at that point that they tried to take over and to fight back.

September 14, 2001 – Community memorial service, Shanksville, Pa. 
Photo credit: Jason Plotkin, York Dispatch/York Sunday News.

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

Victoria Connor: I did have the opportunity to go there with an FBI chaplain, we had a private little service at a location overlooking the actual crash site. It was incredible because it was like the plane itself had telescoped into the ground, it compacted in. There was nothing to see, just a crater of dirt. There were stakes with yellow flags on them on the various areas where debris was being collected from the FBI.

When I left the Red Cross, I became the CEO of the organization I work for now, the York County Bar Association and Foundation. I work with the attorneys and judges that practice law here in my community. It ended up that the then President of the Families of United Flight 93 organization, Patrick White, is an attorney from Florida who was the cousin of one of the passengers who died. He negotiated the land deal so that they could build the memorial. I have gone back for the five-year, the ten-year, the fifteen-year anniversaries; they do special commemorative celebrations every year, but I have gone back for the milestone ones.

Undicisettembre: How was this case unique in respect to others you have been involved with?

Victoria Connor: It was incredibly unique, because we had never experienced anything like this since Pearl Harbor, but I do not think anyone in this country had expected that this would have become our reality to face.

Undicisettembre: While you guys were at the crash site, was anyone having doubts that an airplane had crashed there?

Victoria Connor: No, no. There were no doubts. There were eyewitnesses and telephone recordings. In Somerset there is a beautifully done memorial and museum where you can listen to the phone and voice message recordings of some of the passengers and crew. You can pick up a phone that looks like an airfone from the plane and you can hear their last words, leaving messages for their loved ones. That is incredibly poignant and that is how we knew that they were heroes because they gave first-hand accounts of what was going on.

The location itself is beautifully serene, the spot of the crash is marked with a boulder, it is only accessible through a gate and only the family members are permitted to enter the sacred ground where the passengers are resting eternally. It is a beautiful thing to see and now more recently they installed the wind chimes, which are the tower of voices that represent the voices of the passengers.

September 11, 2011 - President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama
laid a wreath during the dedication ceremony for the Flight 93 National Memorial
at the 10th anniversary of the events of 9/11.
Photo credit: Victoria Connor

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

Victoria Connor: It really had deepened my sense of patriotism, of what it means to be an American, my commitment to donating blood, to volunteering, to supporting organizations like the Red Cross and other response agencies that bring hope and help to people following disasters like this.

In May 2020, one of my friends from Boston died from COVID and I plan to do a blood drive in her honor. She was the director of national partnerships for blood services for the Red Cross and I cannot think of anything more fitting that that. There is no substitute for people helping other people. What happened on 9/11 on United Flight 93, the Pentagon, and inside the towers with the firefighters and others helping each other is a lesson that resonates throughout time.

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

Victoria Connor: That is false and misinformed.

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

Victoria Connor: It is a completely different scenario, COVID is an enemy that you cannot see and that we do not have an antidote for right now. I do not think there is any comparison other than to say people who can donate blood or plasma are incredibly needed, we must support our healthcare and frontline workers. It is a completely different type of disaster, but the need for people to help each other and to work together is the same, even more so.

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