'Day at a Time' Gets Family Member Through Double Crisis
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., Oct. 11, 2001 Overcome with grief and plagued by the agony of the unknown, Lillian Lightbourn rushed from Rochester, N.Y., to Virginia. Crying and praying all the way, her sole wish was that her sister would be found alive in the rubble of the Pentagon.
Lillian Lightbourn holds a picture of her sister, Samantha Lightbourn-Allen, who was a fatality in the terrorist attack at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo by Rudi Williams.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Little did she know at that point what else would beset her before the week ended.
It took her less than eight hours to drive the 500 miles to her father's house in Capital Heights, Md. There, she learned about the DoD Family (Casualty) Assistance Center in the Crystal City Sheraton Hotel in Arlington, Va.
She rushed to the center hoping for good news about her sister, Samantha Lightbourn-Allen, who worked in the Army budget office. The office was in the direct path of the hijacked airliner that struck the Pentagon early Sept. 11.
Her second day in Virginia was one of the most apprehensive and heartbreaking of her life, Lightbourn said. "I don't know if words can describe how I felt at the crash site because my sister is still there," she said. Military escorts took more than 350 family members, loved ones and friends of victims to visit the Pentagon crash site within days of the terrorist attack.
Lightbourn remembered being upset -- trucks and equipment obscured the families' view of the lower half of the building at the impact site. "We all wanted to see," she said. "Even though they took us there, they only allowed us to see half way and above."
Reeling with grief and disbelief as she tearfully struggled to see the ground, Lightbourn recalled thinking, "'If I could see the ground part, maybe I could see her.' Since I couldn't see the ground, I couldn't see her. I was still holding onto hope -- hoping for a miracle.
"We were hoping she'd knock on the door at any time, but we're still waiting," Lightbourn said sadly.
By that Saturday, Sept. 15, she sensed something was wrong with her mother in Rochester. Her mother, Freddie Mae Lightbourn Woods, 73, was gravely ill with a brain tumor, she knew, but the diagnosis was still out.
Accepting the fact there would no miracle at the Pentagon, Lightbourn headed back to Rochester that Sunday morning to check on her mother. Her life shattered by the loss of her sister, her return trip took more than 12 hours, she said, because she "had to pull over a lot because I couldn't see well from crying."
It was Monday when doctors broke the news: Her mother's tumor is malignant. When they said her mother needs round- the-clock care, Lightbourn arranged a leave of absence from work.
"She can't be left alone. My mom only has six months, or less," Lightbourn said. "I can't assume that someone else is going to take care of her. My supervisor that said by law I can take a family leave."
Co-workers asked how she was going to live without working. "'That's not my concern right now,'" Lightbourn remembered telling them. "'God is leading my mother, and me as well. I'm doing this very calmly. Before the 11th (Sept. 11), I would have told you there is no way I could do this. Now, it's not a problem doing it."
Lightbourn recalled astonishment when an American Red Cross representative called her at home and offered to help solve her financial problems. "He asked me if I had any outstanding bills," she said. "I couldn't really think, so I told him I had to get a place for my mom. He put me on hold, and when he came back on the line, he said, 'We're going to send you enough money to get her a place for three months and pay for the utilities and to pay off your bills.' I don't know what to say. I call 'Matt' my angel. And I've been swarmed with angels."
She said she discovered a strength she didn't know she had. "I just began doing it," Lightbourn said. "So the family is pretty happy and content about the way I'm handling things. There were 12 of us kids, now there are 11. Samantha has a twin sister, Rennea Lightbourn. She also has two children and a lot of nieces, nephews and cousins who all live Maryland."
Allen's two children are Samantha Bridget Allen, 12, and John Allen, 16. "They seem to be holding up really well, but we don't know what's going through their heads at night because they haven't expressed it in the open," Lightbourn said. "But they're very much aware that she will not be coming home."
Her new-found strength helps her cope with the loss of her sister and the inevitable loss of her mother, but she's concerned about how her son, Quentin Lightbourn, 30, and her sister's children are dealing with the situation.
"My mother and Quentin are bonded -- he's pretty much in denial," she noted. It was Quentin who called the Pentagon tragedy to Lightbourn's attention on Sept. 11. An Army Reserve sergeant petroleum specialist, he was working on his civilian job as a chemical engineer in Seattle when Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon. His mother was at work as an administrative assistant in Rochester. "My son e-mailed me and asked, 'Mom, where is Samantha'?
"What do you mean, where is Samantha?" she asked her son.
"Is she at the Pentagon?" her son said.
"OK, what's wrong with the Pentagon," she asked him.
"Then he told me," said Lightbourn, who works for the Metro Council for Teen Potential at Baden Street Settlement in Rochester. "I hadn't heard because where I work we don't have TVs and the radio was off. So I didn't know."
Trying to cope with her sister being missing, Lightbourn kept busy Sept. 12 by doing laundry and didn't go to sleep until about 1 a.m., but woke up about four hours later. "I woke up coming here," she said. "I was just in that mode. I didn't know how. I didn't know what. I didn't know anything."
She called her boss and told her about her dilemma. "My office gave me a cell phone and I rented a car and by 10:30 a.m. I was headed south toward Washington to find out about my sister. Arriving in the late afternoon, she went to her father's house to talk to her family and learned about the assistance center in Arlington, Va.
She was met as soon as she walked through the center door. "I don't know who they were - they asked, 'Are you a family member?' I told them, 'I'm Samantha Lightbourn's sister' and there was a swarm of hugs," she said.
"If it wasn't for the support the military gave us, I don't know if I would have been able to release Samantha as quickly as I did. The help they gave made it so much easier. I tried to get my father to come to the center and crash site and he simply refuses," she said. "The Defense Department people truly, truly went above and beyond anything I expected to help us deal with the situation."
She recalled a time in the center when she thought, "This is so precious, oh God, so precious -- it's unreal -- it's real -- it's good, and it should be all the time. It should not stop, should not end." Even now, tears welled up in her eyes as she struggled to speak. "Family is the power; you don't have to be related to be family, and this proves it," she said.
"When I allow myself to dwell on Samantha and my mother, it takes me awhile to pull it together," she said. "I'm just doing it a day at a time."