On a foggy Sunday this September, in a small church surrounded by old, red wooden barns, pastures of black and white dairy cows, sheep and horses and the neat, perfectly manicured farms of Union County, Pennsylvania, a congregation gathered at Mazeppa Union Church to hear a firsthand account from a first responder to the United Flight 93 crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11, 2001.
Pastor Ricky Phillips invited noted author Lillie Leonardi to describe her experience of witnessing angels rise out of the mist just hours after Flight 93 crashed.
A former law enforcement officer from Arnold, Pennsylvania, Leonardi was formerly employed by the FBI’s Pittsburgh division as a community outreach specialist. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Leonardi reported to work a bit late due to car trouble and arrived at her office just as Flight 93 had been determined to be hijacked and heading toward Washington, D.C.
Immediately upon receiving word that the plane had crashed near Shanksville, the FBI division sent Leonardi and her colleagues directly to the crash site. Leonardi described arriving just hours after the crash and seeing the firefighters returning to their vehicles, sooty and with looks of bewilderment. Having seen other plane crashes in her career, she was bracing herself for what she was about to find and how she would be able to help victim’s families.
As the team traipsed through the brush to hike out to the crash site from the closest road, Leonardi was overpowered by the scent of burnt pine and the stillness of the morning. They eventually joined other first responders on a bluff and gazed out at a large, black crater.
The plane was not visible. It had crashed at such a high rate of speed that it disintegrated upon the impact and explosion.
As they stood on the bluff, they saw the burnt pine trees just ahead of the crash site where the jet fuel and flames were sent by the momentum of the plane. There were small bits and pieces of debris but astoundingly, no bodies and no large aircraft parts were visible.
As the team of law enforcement officers stared in silence, Leonardi was distracted by a shimmering light to the left of the crash site that seemed almost like the ripples on a pond that appear when a school of fish swim at the surface of the water. She kept looking at the crash site but felt drawn to the light and movement to the left. Her colleagues appeared not to notice.
Leonardi had been praying all morning. The light and rippling movement seemed to rise into a mist and there emerged what she described as a “legion of angels.” The angels were seemed to be of every culture and nationality and were dressed in ancient Centurion garb. They were 8 to 10 feet tall with one even larger angel leading the group. The predominant leader was wearing a sword, pointing downward. Daunted, Leonardi realized she couldn’t ask her colleagues if they, too, saw what she was witnessing for fear of being called unfit by the FBI and dismissed from her job.
To the church congregation, Lillie read from her book an excerpt of exactly what she saw, “The light began to evolve into a foggy white mist. The white mist then began to take shape. It moved and swirled in patterns of spectacular white light. All at once, the mist took full shape and I saw what appeared to be angels. There were angels standing in the open area to the left of the crash site. There were hundreds of them standing in columns. There was a field of angels emerging from the realms of the mist. They were archangels with their wings arched up toward the sky.”
Leonardi, who was raised a devout Catholic, continued to pray and ask God for clarification of what she was witnessing. “Please, God, give me a sign that I’m not losing my mind and that I am really seeing this,” she prayed.
The group of law enforcement officers began to walk from the bluff overlooking the crash site down closer to the debris field. Walking in near silence, one of them remarked that a suitcase managed to survive but not one body of the 40 passengers and crew on board was visible. Near the suitcase lay an open Bible. A slight breeze disturbed the pages and Leonardi and the others gathered around it to see which page it was open to. Psalm 23. Remarkable. Leonardi felt that God had answered her request for validation that the angels she had seen from the bluff were real.
Years later, Leonardi would learn that local 911 operators who had intercepted phone calls from passengers on hijacked Flight 93 had read Psalm 23 to them in their final moments of despair.
Leonardi proceeded with her job for the next several years and was unable to tell anyone about what she had seen, but inside was suffering from what she would later learn was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. With deteriorating health, continued torment about what she had witnessed and increasing stress, Leonardi finally was able to ask for medical help, though she did have to leave her position with the FBI.
Now, 17 years later, the extent and severity of PTSD amongst first responders, victim’s families and people who were at or near the Sept. 11 crash sites has been well documented with many resources being set up to provide help to those suffering. A website for others with PTSD from Sept. 11 can be found here.
Leonardi has become acquainted with other law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical service personnel and recovery workers who served on 9/11 (and the post days of reclamation) at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Flight 93 crash sites who have also suffered from PTSD. In meeting these amazing men and women, Leonardi earned that she was not alone. There are thousands of others who have stories to share about how this once silent illness has permeated the beings of so many. “Their plight is my plight, as it is for millions of others who bear the weight of this illness and the stigma attached to it,” she said.
Leonardi has written many published articles and a best-selling book, “In The Shadow Of A Badge: A Spiritual Memoir.” She said her primary reason for going public with her story after years of soul-searching is to heal, and to bring comfort and healing to others affected either by the attack or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She wants people to know that God was indeed present at the crash site.
Lillie has often asked herself, “Why?” Why did she see the legion of angels at the Flight 93 crash site that morning? She has come to believe that the lead angel was Saint Michael the Archangel, an archangel in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and that he was sent to pursue the defeat of violence.
Leonardi noted that even though nearly 3,000 people perished in the attacks on Sept. 11, more than 25,000 were saved. It’s impossible to determine the magnitude of what might have happened that day had the decision to ground all air traffic immediately by President Bush not been made.
In that small, country church in Union County, Pennsylvania, a gentleman spoke softly to Leonardi following the service and told her that he thought the significance of the downward sword carried by Saint Michael was protection and peace. Though she had often described Archangel Saint Michael’s sword, Lillie had never realized the significance of its direction.
Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania is open. https://www.nps.gov/flni/
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