SHANKSVILLVE (KDKA) — One of those who will be in Shanksville this weekend is Lillie Leonardi, a first responder to the scene on that dark day.
What she saw and experienced has haunted her for a decade.
It has also given her personal insight into the triumph of the human spirit.
“In that moment – again, you’re standing there going, ‘Oh my God! Oh, my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Do I have to be here?’”
On Sept.11, 2001, Lillie Leonardi, arriving in a mobile command truck, knew that the field near Shanskville, Somerset County, was as bad as bad could be. She could see it reflected in the eyes of firefighters.
“The first thing that hit me was the smell,” she recalled. “It was a combination of fire and the pine. The second thing that hit me was we’re in the middle of the wilderness and there’s no sounds of birds.”
On that day, Leonardi was with the Pittsburgh division of the FBI as a community affairs coordinator.
Aside from the blackened forest and smoldering crater, she says she saw something else – a rising mist with shapes inside and silver flickers.
A devout Catholic, Lille wondered if they were angels or even the 40 heroic souls of those on United Airlines Flight 93 who’d fought their hijackers to the end.
Then she, and two men with her, spotted a Bible, barely singed.
“Again, I’m praying, and all of a sudden I said, ‘God just give me a sign that I haven’t lost my mind.’
“And all of a sudden this huge wind came out of nowhere and flipped that Bible open and I remember it flipped open to Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd…’ ”
In the days to come, Lillie was the primary liaison with the families of the lost, escorting them to memorial services at the site.
“And so every story or every hug that was needed, had to be – and what you don’t realize – what I understand now is you absorb all of that,” she said.
The past decade has been a personal struggle for Lillie, physically and emotionally. She recently retired from the FBI with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
She remains fragile but strong in her faith and has written a book due out in October about her spiritual journey from 9/11. She will be in Shanksville with her daughter this weekend.
“I’m just hoping it’s going to be a healing day for us all,” she said.