For Local Pastor, Painful Memories of 9/11 a Constant Presence

The Rev. Phil Bjornberg, of Accomac, holds a photograph of his cousin, Dianne Snyder, far left; himself, center; and Bjornberg’s aunt, Ana Kristine. Bjornberg. Photo by Carol Vaughn.

By Carol Vaughn —

For some people, remembering the events of Sept. 11, 2001, happens much more often than once every 20 years.
The Rev. Phil Bjornberg, rector of St. George’s Parish in Accomack County, is among those who lost loved ones that day.
Dianne Bullis Snyder, 42, of Westport, Mass., Bjornberg’s cousin, was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11 going from Boston to Los Angeles — the first airplane to hit the World Trade Center in New York City on that day.
Snyder had been a flight attendant for 19 years, 17 based in New York and the last two based in Boston.
Bjornberg and Snyder’s sister, Elizabeth Bullis-Wiese, of Fairfield, Conn., recalled their relative and the events of that day in a recent interview.
“She was very charismatic. She was funny. And she was a mom — and mothers tend to be real doers. She just loved her kids. She loved family. She loved cooking and making them a home, as well as working and playing tennis. She had a dog. She was just really a great person to be with. Of all the cousins, everybody just loved Dianne,” said Bullis-Wiese.
The close-knit family includes more than three dozen first cousins.
Bullis-Wiese was at her job at a frame shop in Connecticut when the news broke. She knew her sister was flying that day — she had spoken with her the night before.
“She told me that her son was going to be home from school the next day because they had done something to the gymnasium floor — they had resurfaced it. … So I knew he was going to be home. She had to go into work, get ready at 4 a.m. It was an early flight,” Bullis-Wiese said.
As Bullis-Wiese was starting her work day, “Someone called my boss and said, ‘Hey, turn on the radio.There’s something going on,’” she recalled.
That was just after the first airplane struck — the one, as it turned out, carrying her sister and 91 other souls, as well as al-Qaeda member and hijacker Mohamed Atta, who deliberately crashed the plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing everyone aboard and leading to the death of hundreds more in the building and on the ground.
Bullis-Wiese quickly called her nephew and found out he was alone at home. He had heard about the crash, but did not yet understand his mother was on that flight.
“Luckily, my sister’s friend went to the house — she knew he was home so she went and she was with him,” Bullis-Wiese said.
“We didn’t find out for sure that Dianne was on that flight until 2:30 that day.”
People kept coming into the shop, stunned and asking to use the telephone to try to contact loved ones.
After a while, Bullis-Wiese’s husband arrived and took her home.
“So the more I heard and the more I thought about it, I was horrified to think that Dianne was in this, but then I realized — this is bigger than me. This is just everybody. I was filled with compassion for everybody,” Bullis-Wiese said.
As the nation marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, this is what she hopes people will think about:
“After 9/11 happened…how everybody was together and helping. There was a great outpouring of generosity and love between people, and I think we just really have to always remember that. Remember the good that came out of it. It was a horrible experience, but there was something good after — the way people behaved.”
At first, each anniversary was “such a big point of remembrance — it brought it to a head each year for several years,” Bjornberg said of his grief over losing his cousin.
With time’s passage, in the last decade or so, that had diminished somewhat.
But then, another far-reaching tragedy — the COVID-19 pandemic — with its accompanying loss of life, brought it all back.
“In the face of COVID and 18 months of this, (there is) another kind of sense of powerlessness on a grand scale, and to have this invitation to remember Dianne after 20 years — it’s really hitting me poignantly this year,” Bjornberg said.
Both tragedies focused attention on “the compassion and the frailty and the sense of how desperately we need one another, to care for one another,” he said.
Responding to the pandemic, like 9/11, gives people “another opportunity to pull together in compassion and ‘one anothering,’” according to Bjornberg, adding that COVID-19 “isn’t as graphic as airplanes flying into buildings, but it is the same sort of violence against us as the human family.”
Sadly, while some responded to each event with compassion, others responded with “a negative, violent response,” he observed.
Responders who meticulously combed through the ruins of the World Trade Center in the days after 9/11 found remains of Dianne Snyder and were able to return her wedding ring to her husband, John.
The band was badly battered.
“He showed it to me and it was all bent. …I started crying — Oh, my God,” Bullis-Wiese said.
Still, John Snyder was able to have the ring repaired and it will be passed on to their daughter one day, she said.
Snyder’s son and daughter, Leland and Blakeslee, are now 34 and 31.
“They’ve had a hard time, but they are both really doing well,” Bullis-Wiese said.
When Snyder’s funeral was held several weeks after 9/11, Bjornberg was touched deeply by the outpouring of support, “which epitomized what was happening all around us.”
As he drove down Interstate 95 in Connecticut on his way to the service, digital highway department signs pointed the way to parking for the funeral.
“The shuttle buses were down at the beach and they were moving people out. All the American Airlines staff and flight attendants and pilots (all in uniform) …” — Bjornberg’s voice trailed off as he relived the emotions of that day.
Dianne Snyder’s obituary called her “a loving mother and the best chocolate chip cookie maker. … She will best be remembered as a devoted wife, mother, sister, daughter, and friend.”
“Dianne really was a light. … She really was something,” Snyder’s sister said.
Still, the emotional upheaval didn’t end after the funeral — not by a long shot.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Bjornberg’s son, a National Guardsman, was deployed to Iraq for 13 months.
“I remember how angry I was that this thing had taken on a life of its own. … Suddenly, when I watched the news about events happening around the world, it got deeply personal. I began to see that each and every one of those was a family unit and they were children like my children and relatives like my relatives,” he said.
9/11 and its aftermath led to a major shift in priorities for Bjornberg — a shift to putting spirituality and compassion and “living a life larger than yourself” at the forefront.
Bjornberg had had a successful career with a major aerospace company from 1979 to 2001, followed by a stint as owner-operator of a custom hardwood flooring installation and finishing company he started.
The shift in his priorities after 9/11 first led to him getting sober — and ultimately led him to become an Episcopal priest.
“No longer did we have the luxury of talking about peace, love, and happiness as an abstract idea, but it became something in our daily existence that we felt was a necessity — and our reason to exist was to promote that,” he said.


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