ARLINGTON, Va. — The latch clicked loudly, and Lt. Col. Robert L. Ditchey pushed open a door inside Corridor 4 of the Pentagon.
He entered an area that resembles an urban alley, but with a roof.
“This is where the final pieces of the aircraft had crashed through,” explained Ditchey, Pentagon press officer for the Department of Defense.
No hint of such destruction was visible on a sweltering afternoon in July 2011. Besides a handful of uniformed military people, the passageway stood empty.
The scene was far different on Sept. 11, 2001.
“This area, at that time, was filled with smoke, debris,” Ditchey explained, “and there are accounts of people who were basically jumping from the windows to be saved.”
A hijacker at the controls of American Airlines Flight 77 crashed the Boeing 757 into the western portion of the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. Five al-Qaida terrorists stormed the cockpit just before 9 o’clock as part of a plot to attack high-profile American landmarks.
Less than an hour before Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, two other hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York. At 10:03, a fourth plane — with the U.S. Capitol as its intended target — slammed into a remote field near Shanksville, Pa., after a passenger uprising prompted the suicidal terrorists to crash short of their goal.
The assault in Washington killed 125 civilians and military employees inside the Pentagon that morning. Everyone aboard Flight 77 — including 53 passengers and six crew members, who thought they would be flying from Washington Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles — died, too. The incident altered U.S. military policy, triggered a pair of wars, and heightened security measures throughout the nation’s capital. But the 184 lives lost on the sunset side of the Pentagon a decade ago have not been forgotten amid the vast after-effects.
In fact, the understated Pentagon Memorial was completed long before permanent tributes at the other two 9/11 crash sites in New York and Pennsylvania. The memorial park, with 184 illuminated steel-and-granite benches, occupies a 1.93-acre lot outside the repaired wall between Corridors 4 and 5 — the western wedge of the U.S. military headquarters. The $22-million tribute, open 24 hours a day, was finished and dedicated Sept. 11, 2008. The national memorials in New York and Shanksville will be unveiled on Sunday, the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Likewise, the blackened gash inflicted upon the Pentagon by terrorism was fixed faster than anticipated. The task was immense. It’s the world’s largest office building at 6.5-million square feet, with five stories above ground and two below. An average of 23,000 people per day work at or visit the Pentagon.
Inspired to show the nation’s resiliency, construction crews toiled seven days a week to demolish and rebuild the ruined sections in time for a remembrance ceremony one year after the attacks. “They wanted to work Christmas day, and we wouldn’t let them,” said Bill Hopper, Pentagon communications manager. The $520-million repair job, dubbed “the Phoenix Project,” was done by Aug. 15, 2002, nearly a month early.
Fifteen-thousand cubic feet of Indiana limestone provided the finishing touch to the exterior. Bybee Stone in Ellettsville culled the rock from the same vein that produced the 460,000 cubic feet of limestone used to build the Pentagon, beginning in 1941. The seam where the old block meets the new is almost undetectable. “The stone will take a number of years to age or have the same color as the original stone,” Hopper said.
Healing from 9/11 takes time, too. Some of its impact is easily detected, especially in Washington. Some effects are more subtle.
‘They lost somebody here’
Dan and Danielle Myers of Albany, N.Y., brought their three young children, and a unique perspective on 9/11, to the Pentagon Memorial in July.
Their kids, a 6-year-old and twin 3-year-olds, curiously studied the cantilevered benches (one for each victim of the crash), which are surrounded by a bed of stabilized gravel. Those seats are arranged in rows according to the birth years of those who died that day. The youngest, 3-year-old Flight 77 passenger Dana Falkenberg, was born in 1998. The oldest, 71-year-old Navy veteran John D. Yamnicky, also on board the plane, was born in 1930. Those two birth years, along with those of the other 182 victims, are marked in stainless steel. A name is inscribed on the front edge of each bench; if the name can be read with the Pentagon in the background, that person was in the building on the day of the crash; if the name can be read with the sky behind it, that person was aboard Flight 77.
The “zero line,” etched with limestone retrieved from the 9/11 wreckage, reads: “SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 9:37 AM,” which, as Lt. Col. Ditchey put it, “represents when time stopped for the people that are memorialized here.” Running water beneath each of the 184 benches stops flowing, briefly, each morning at 9:37.
At that same moment in 2001, 230 miles northeast of Washington, Danielle Myers was running out of New York’s financial district in Lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center towers were burning. Danielle, a 34-year-old accountant, was on her way to work at the adjacent World Financial Center when “the plane flew over my head as I was walking,” she said.
Hijacked planes hit the north and south towers at 8:46 and 9:03, respectively. Less than two hours later, both skyscapers collapsed, resulting in 2,753 deaths, according to the city of New York’s official count. Danielle fled Lower Manhattan on foot as soon as she saw the first plane hit the North Tower. “I left downtown. The second plane hit, and I was gone — that was it,” she recalled. “My cellphone went through to [Dan’s] number at 9:02. And [then] I dropped my phone in my purse and ran.”
Danielle ended up at Grand Central Station in Midtown Manhattan. “I did the ‘40-block marathon,’ as they call it,” she said. Later, she was able to reach her husband at his work in Albany by cellphone. Danielle told Dan she was safe and wanted to move away from the city. They’d been living in between her job in NYC and his at the state of New York’s DNA crime lab in Albany. She found a new job and they found a home in Albany 10 months later.
Dan, 36, dealt with difficulties, too. The state crime lab, working closely with the New York City chief medical examiner, handled identifications of many 9/11 victims’ remains.
To assist in the ID process, families sent in bags of “toothbrushes, towels and mugs the people had used the day before they’d gone to work [at the Twin Towers],” Dan explained, as Danielle watched the Myers kids checking out the Pentagon Memorial benches. “In these bags, they would put pictures of their loved ones, and it was very hard to see some guy standing on a beach with three or four of his kids, or standing in his kitchen with his grandchildren. That was really tough.”
The emotions attached to a tragedy that stretched from New York to Washington to Pennsylvania and reverberated throughout the nation are profoundly felt, especially when the devastation hit close to home.
“I’m not sure the rest of the country understands as much as people that were directly involved. And, I’m sure that I wouldn’t understand as much as someone that has lost someone,” Dan Myers said, pausing and glancing across the Pentagon Memorial. “Some of the people, they lost somebody here.”
Not immune anymore
On the other side of the Pentagon Memorial, 26-year-old Jamie Egan of North Carolina strolled its grounds with her friend, Ami Thompson. On 9/11, Egan watched the saga in New York unfold on a TV in her high school classroom in Georgia. A short while later, she learned another plane had hit the Pentagon, where her father worked as a field contractor for Northrop Grumman, a defense technology company. Eventually, Egan and her family found out her dad was OK.
“It was probably one of the scariest moments, to think that somebody, especially my dad — that something could’ve happened,” Egan said.
She took her friend to the Pentagon Memorial while visiting her dad in July. The stop deepened Thompson’s 9/11 knowledge, which had centered on the first two crashes in New York City. Though not as personally linked to the event as her friend, the Sept. 11 scheme still affected Thompson, also 26. “I hate planes because I think of that,” she said. “Before that, I would go to visit my grandma in California and not even think about it. Now, when I get on a plane, I have anxiety.”
Thompson is not alone.
Otto Forster and his son, Andreas, know the same uneasy feeling. In July, Andreas traveled to Washington to visit his father, who works at the German embassy. “If I am in an airport, I have an image of what happened,” said the younger Forster, 22, as he and his dad walked along the northern edge of the Pentagon Memorial, with the sounds of traffic on South Washington Boulevard and jets landing at nearby Reagan National Airport in the background.
The world shared in the sense of loss. Among the people killed in the broadest terrorist act on U.S. soil, 372 were foreign nationals, including 11 from Germany.
“The world has changed from this day,” Otto Forster said of 9/11.
It was a harsh point of transition for Americans. “I think people have just learned that the U.S. has joined the world in having to deal with being fearful,” said Kathy Guthrie, a Terre Haute native who has lived and worked on Capitol Hill for 17 years. “The British have had to deal with [terrorism] for years and years with the IRA bombings and so forth, and the Spanish and the Israelis. It’s not something we are any more immune to because we live in his country, and I think we’ve had to learn how to deal with that.”
Guthrie was working at the Friends Committee on National Legislation building near the Capitol on 9/11. She heard about the strikes on New York while at home. After arriving at her office, the Pentagon was attacked. The Friends building was quickly evacuated. “There was a great deal of concern that there would be more attacks in Washington, D.C., particularly on the Capitol, which was just two blocks from our office,” she said.
Indeed, the 9/11 Commission investigation indicated the Capitol — where Congress was convened — was likely the intended target of the al-Qaida hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Once those 40 passengers and crew members heard of the New York and Pentagon suicide missions through cellphone calls to loved ones and airline contacts on the ground, they charged the hijackers in the cockpit, the commission concluded. The terrorists opted to crash the plane near Shanksville.
Changes in security
Since then, security measures in Washington, as elsewhere in the nation, have tightened dramatically.
Guthrie experiences those changes daily. Now retired, she continues to work part-time and volunteer by guiding tourists as a docent at the Library of Congress. She can no longer ride her bicycle around the Capitol grounds because of added restrictions. “What we notice are the official barriers that are all around, the security you have to go through all the time,” she said. “Even walking into the Library of Congress, men have to take off their belts. And you can’t take any bottles of even water or anything into the Capitol.”
The era of spontaneous, same-day decisions to tour the White House, for example, has passed. Requests must be made at least 21 days in advance through the prospective visitor’s congressional representative or foreign embassy. Clearance through the U.S. Secret Service is required.
Metal scanners and ID checks represent the new normal in Washington.
The Capitol Visitors Center originally had a $71-million pricetag, according to the Washington Post archives, when it was planned in the 1990s — before 9/11. By its debut in 2008, the CVC’s cost was $621 million, the Post stated. Expanded security specifications added to its expense.
“Because of security and because of the world we live in now, everything has changed,” said Maryellen Anderson, a visitors assistant at the Capitol. “It’s changing for my children going to the airports. They’ll never know what it’s like not to have to take your shoes off and go through everything. You go about your daily life, but you know there’s always a threat in the back of your mind, and my children will be forever affected.”
Anderson said her youngest son dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder after 9/11. His father — her former husband — was among the first responders at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, serving with the Arlington-based technical rescue team of firefighters. He worked nearly three weeks straight in the wake of the tragedy, she explained. “My family was definitely intimately involved,” Anderson said.
Spirits in Washington and across America eventually raised. “I think we’ve become a more patriotic country because of that [day],” Anderson said. “Love of country is more common.”
Love of Washington also is strong among those who live and work there.
As Guthrie prepared to lead the next afternoon tour through the Library of Congress, she spoke passionately about the city’s beauty and virtues.
The Library of Congress, she explained, houses 147 million items. Last year, more than 1.7 million people visited the historic facility, a three-building complex anchored by the 1897-era Thomas Jefferson Building, where parts of the Nicholas Cage movie “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” were filmed. Tourism in Washington overall reached a post-9/11 peak last year, with 17.3 million visitors spending a combined $5.7 billion, according to Destination D.C., a city tourism corporation. Guthrie highly recommends people visit or relocate.
“I love Washington, D.C., and it’s a wonderful city to live in,” she said. “And it makes me very sad when I hear people talk about, ‘Oh, Washington’s so terrible,’ because they think the only thing there is about Washington is the politics. It’s a friendly city to live in.”
‘It brought the country together’
Pitching Washington as a vacation spot wasn’t easy in the wake of the terrorism aimed at the city, as well as New York.
“Tourism took a hit,” said Cindy Dickerson, who served as interim president of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association at that time. The association enlisted cast members of “West Wing” — the White House-based NBC TV show — to urge Americans to continue visiting their capital.
In July, Dickerson was doing just that. The 47-year-old Arlington, Va., resident walked through the Lincoln Memorial with her daughter and niece. With the girls circling around her as she spoke, Dickerson recalled two strong memories of 9/11. She spent that traumatic day in Washington, and later drove her usual route home on I-395, going right past the Pentagon. “Normally, [the highway] is just jammed,” Dickerson said, “and there just was nobody out there.”
She also remembers that Americans quickly responded beyond their shock.
“I think it brought the country together,” Dickerson said, with the imposing, 19-foot-tall, marble image of Lincoln behind her. “As horrifying an event as it was, it brought the country together.”
Back at the Pentagon Memorial, Tim and Chris Barr and their three teenage children scanned the 184 names cut into a granite marker at the gateway. They came to Washington from East Troy, Wis. Remembering what happened 10 years ago is important, Tim said. Extra time spent at airport check-ins, because of safety precautions, remains worthwhile, said his wife, Chris.
“Americans have such a short memory, grousing about lines for security, not remembering what happened a short time ago and could easily happen again,” said Tim, 47. “Just as [Chris] said, ‘That’s the world we live in now.’”
Otto Forster, the German embassy employee touring the Pentagon Memorial with his son, also has visited ground zero in New York. The new National 9/11 Memorial in NYC opens Sunday and will feature two “Reflecting Absence” waterfalls in the square footprints of the former twin towers, bordered by names of those who died at all three sites. Forster emphasized the importance of memorializing those people.
“It’s necessary to have something like that, maybe to pray for the victims, and you can go in yourself to think about the victims and the family of the victims,” Forster said in a German accent.
“People must remember these attacks,” he added, “and these crazy people who make this terrorism.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.