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Three Months On, Tension Lingers Near the Pentagon


The Pentagon, the other "Ground Zero," looks deceptively unblemished.

Construction workers have cauterized and sealed its gaping, wedge-shaped wound. On a hillside a half-mile away, saddened mourners and stunned citizens have gathered daily for three months. They leave tokens of remembrance.

Pentagon Damage

The Other "Ground Zero"

Firefighters take a break at the site of the terrorist attack at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Photograph by Stephen Jaffe/AFP/CORBIS


Thousands upon thousands of the patriotic mementos have been cleared away and stored inside the Pentagon itself—as though the five-sided building of concentric rings is strong enough to absorb not only the pain of the 190 people who died there, but also the grief of survivors.

"Thank you for the tremendous response!!" reads a printed sign at the site. It says that "all historical artifacts" have been collected "for their preservation and safekeeping."

Three months ago, on September 11 at 9:38 a.m., a Tuesday, Jose Velasquez heard the rumble of imminent death overhead. "I knew something was wrong. The planes come more from the north and west [to land at Reagan National Airport] not from the south. And not so low."

He was talking on the telephone that morning to a friend who was feeding him gauzy reports about airplane crashes at the World Trade Center in New York. But Velasquez slammed down the receiver and raced outside when he felt the gas station he supervises suddenly begin to tremble from a too-close airplane.

"It was like an earthquake," the Costa Rican native said last week. What Velasquez felt above him almost within touching distance was American Airlines Flight 77 just seconds before impact.

His gas station, open only to Department of Defense personnel, is the last structure between the Pentagon and the hillside that, hours later, would become a wailing knoll. "By the time I got outside all I could see was a giant cloud of smoke, first white then black, coming from the Pentagon," he said. "It was just a terrible, terrible thing to be so close to."

Today, Velasquez still trembles when he talks about the incident that has forever changed the military, government, and technology polyglot that is Northern Virginia. "Even today," said Velasquez, "people who come here tell me they are frightened to come to work. You can see it in their eyes."

Velasquez says the gas station's security cameras are close enough to the Pentagon to have recorded the moment of impact. "I've never seen what the pictures looked like," he said. "The FBI was here within minutes and took the film."

Undercurrent of Tension

Indelibly etched in the memories of millions of Northern Virginia residents are the events of September 11 and the sense of transformation they have wrought.

The change goes far deeper than the red, white and blue paraphernalia that adorns so many automobiles. The tenor of life has taken on a tuning-fork vibrancy, a tension that begs the question of what will befall us next but softened by a sense of necessary, resolute camaraderie.

At a convenience store, a reporter asked a Pakistani clerk how he has been treated of late. His store is off Columbia Pike, a road bisecting densely packed, multicultural Arlington County neighborhoods.

"Oh, fine, fine," says the man, who wears an American flag pin where a name tag should be. "I have been here 17 years, you know."

But as he talks, he is edging away from customers toward the refrigerated burritos, and his eyes look as if they are searching for a hiding place from overt attention.

At a parking payment booth at Reagan National Airport, attendant Sibghat Khan, a native of Pakistan, attributed his seniority and Northern Virginia's melting-pot society for keeping his job alive during lean times. But he's been laid off from a second airport job shuttling airplanes on the tarmac. Reduced flights have taken a toll at the sparkling, refurbished facility.

Are things back to normal? he was asked.

"I wish," he said worriedly.

Steady Mourning

The official mourning process is still an almost daily ritual. From his gas station, Velasquez can watch funeral processions enter Arlington National Cemetery. Four missing Pentagon personnel, two of them Northern Virginians, still have not been positively identified and accounted for.

Monday, retired Army Lt. Col. Gary F. Smith, 55, was laid to rest at Arlington. He will be deservingly remembered as a dedicated hero, his family and friends say.

Thirty years ago, in April 1971, he charged back into a burning chopper downed near Ky Tra in Vietnam to rescue fellow soldiers. On September 11, Smith, head of the Army's retirement program, was called to a meeting at the Pentagon. He never had a chance to duplicate the act of courage that won him the Soldier's Medal for heroism in Vietnam.

"He was at the point of impact," explained Smith's widow, Ann. He leaves four daughters and scores more adopted loved ones whom he coached in a Mount Vernon area recreational soccer league.

"This is a man who was totally dedicated to the military, to its retirees and widows, and to his community," said James Harrison, a casualty assistance officer who was Smith's longtime friend. Almost 30 miles from the Pentagon, at Rockledge Elementary School in Prince William County, the shock of September 11 has "pretty much worn off," principal Sandra Carter said.

It has been a difficult process for some families. "We had one family from the Midwest who had just moved here and they said they weren't going to put up with it all. They left to go back home," she said.

"We got our teachers together and made sure we were putting out the same message," she said, "to make sure the kids knew they could talk to us about it." Some children thought there were hundreds of planes and hundreds of attacks: Each television replay registered as a new event.

And there was this: "One father came to the school office that morning who worked at the Pentagon. He was so worried for his child," Carter said. Struggling to keep his composure, the dad dropped his gaze toward the floor. "My goodness. I've forgotten to wear my shoes," he blurted.

Tableau of Lights

John Doyle works a block from the White House. "We heard the impact of the plane hitting the Pentagon," he said. "It was that loud."

He scrambled back to his Arlington home, a place now that has become an odd refuge of sorts for thousands of people. They drive and stroll by at night, stunned by Doyle's Christmas light tableau, an outline of the World Trade Center and the New York skyline beside an outline of Washington, including the Pentagon.

"There's a hole in the Pentagon and it has red, white, and blue lights streaming from it," Doyle said. A neighbor of Arabian descent helped erect a dove of peace that oversees the display. "He joked with me about the crescent moon I put up being in his honor," said Doyle.

The idea for the cityscape came to Doyle in the days after the attack, when neighbors wondered how his ingenuity for lighting design would address the uncertainty of the times. He'd erected a champagne flute for the millennium; for 2001, a space odyssey.

"What we've done seems to touch something in people," he said. "They leave cookies and letters. One lady from New York broke into tears. It's hard to explain."

In the past months, Doyle said he senses that people have become much more aware of one another. "You see people talking a lot more to each other—in stores, on the streets. There's a kindness that you didn't see so much of before. There's a huge population of people and a lot of them aren't from this area. They think of home as somewhere else.

"Now there's more of a feeling that we're all in this together and it's important to make the best of what we have here."

Anxiety and Sharing

Jabbing through his answering machine messages the morning of September 11, The Rev. John D. Hortum could feel the anxiety building among his communicants. The World Trade Center disaster was underway.

One message, from a woman clearly in distress and terribly frightened, stuck out. "It took me a few seconds before I realized it was from my wife," he said.

Leslie Hortum was trapped in her car beside the Pentagon. Flight 77 had just flown directly overhead, clipping light poles as it went. A piece of wreckage was lodged against the car.

"It was just a terrible feeling," said Hortum, rector at the Church of Saint Clement, an Episcopalian church on the southern edge of Arlington County.

"It was another 20 or 30 minutes before there was anything on the television that anything had even happened in Washington. This was the first word I got," he said.

Hortum rushed to the church school, filled with kids. "We're under attack, under attack," he whispered to Christine Yeannakis, the school director.

"I figured he was telling me the vestry was upset about something. We had no idea," Yeannakis recalled.

Then a supersonic boom from somewhere in the sky hushed the playground and Yeannakis hauled the kids into the basement.

Over the next few hours, parents straggled in to retrieve their kids. "One lady walked all the way from the Pentagon in her high heels," Yeannakis said.

A low-flying plane or helicopter still sets nerves on edge, Hortum said. But the congregation seems to be settling in and many people have volunteered with the Red Cross.

"I think everybody is still sort of feeling that they don't really know how they're feeling," said Hortum. "Things have changed so much. There's an anger that people feel for having all this beset them, for having to feel this anxiety. But there's a very real sense that we need to be aware of people beyond ourselves."

Hortum said he and his wife have always been cognizant of the important moments they've shared over the years. "We've never been the type of people to not be aware of special times between us," he said. "But since September 11, I think we've made it a point to express those moments in words, to not just assume we are sharing something important."

Copyright 2001 Richmond Times-Dispatch

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