Public Viewing of 9/11 Memorial Inspires Deep Emotions
By Petty Officer 3rd Class John R. Guardiano, USN
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 10, 2005 For the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Pentagon today allowed the public to view the 9/11 memorial site.
Helen O'Ferrall was one of many visitors who were moved by what they saw. Indeed, the 64-year-old grandmother from Prince George's County, Md., fought back tears as she tried to speak.
"I'm sorry," she finally said. "When I saw how far that plane penetrated into the building - it's horrible. It's not like it just hit and bounced; it tore into everything."
The Pentagon actually was fully renovated less than a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. However, as O'Ferrall's experience shows, the memorial site there can conjure up solemn images for Americans with a vivid memory of what happened on that fateful day.
"It conjures up a lot of emotions," said Nate Nygaard, a retired Army officer from Rhode Island who also visited the memorial site today. "It kind of makes you ... choke in the throat just to think about it. All of this kind of makes you emotional, especially with (Hurricane) Katrina and everything else that's going on."
The memorial is on the south side of the Pentagon, precisely where hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed. A total of 184 people -- everyone onboard the plane and Pentagon workers -- were killed in the attack. And, according to the military Honor Guard tour guides with today's visitors, about 20 percent of the building - five floors high and three rings deep - was completely destroyed.
But as bad as that was, the damage and fatalities actually could have been a lot worse.
"The plane hit the ground first," Senior Airman Aaron Johnson told his tour group. "That caused it to lose about half of its momentum and half of its fuel. Otherwise, we would have been looking at a lot worse disaster."
Moreover, during that time, the south side of the Pentagon was being renovated, and only 125 workers were in that section. But in another two weeks when the renovation was due to be completed, "there easily could have been 3,000 or so people there," Johnson said.
Visitors saw the stone that had been set into the restored building and inscribed "September 11, 2001." The stone remains charred black from the fires that were ignited by jet fuel. Behind the stone, Johnson said, lies a time capsule to commemorate all 184 who died in this terrorist attack.
The time capsule records all their names patches from the nearby Arlington County, Va., police and fire departments; Defense Protective Service patches; 'Let's Roll' patches; medallions from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers; a signed photo of President Bush and Rumsfeld; a copy of Bush's speech to Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; and a bound collection of 46,000 thank-you notes from Americans to U.S. servicemen and women.
As one leaves that area and enters the Pentagon, there is an American Heroes Memorial that records, on stone, all 184 names. A book in front of these tablets provides a picture and short biography of each person, written by surviving family members. Another book allows visitors to record their condolences and sympathies for the families.
The American Heroes Memorial also includes separate tablets for the Purple Heart and Defense of Freedom medals, which were awarded posthumously to those who died on that fateful day.
The Purple Heart is awarded to American servicemen and women who are killed or injured in a conflict; the Defense of Freedom is the civilian counterpart to the Purple Heart.
In addition, visitors saw the adjacent Pentagon Chapel, which, likewise, has been dedicated to the 184 who lost their lives. The chapel includes stained glass windows, one of which has 184 pieces of red glass, all of which surround a small pentagon.
The stained glass windows include depictions of an eagle and a broken heart and the beginning and ending of the military service oath: "Support and defend ... so help me God."
As one leaves the chapel, there is an adjacent outside field on which will be located the Pentagon Memorial, with 184 benches, each with an underlying reflecting pool. The benches will be sized and situated differently, depending on the age and status of the airline passenger or Pentagon worker, Johnson said.
The Pentagon Memorial is being built by a privately endowed foundation, the Pentagon Memorial Fund. The nonprofit fund has raised $9 million for the memorial, but requires another $9 million to commence construction. Officials hope to break ground on the memorial in the fall of 2006, with completion slated for spring 2008, according to memorial fund president Jim Laychak.
"I love the stain-glassed windows, with the heart broken," O'Ferrall said, "And the vows that they take, and 'In God We Trust' -- that was nice. And seeing that charred stone; it's still there... We've got to stop the terrorists," she added.
"I felt very privileged, actually, to be able to be included in what everyone else, I guess, went through," said Caitlin McFadden, 25, of Falls Church, Va. "This actually made you feel like you were a family member, and that you too had lost someone. And it just felt very good to be able to be part of their suffering."
Added Ken Walker, 60, of Yorkville, Ill.: "I take it as a personal assault and affront on us that they would do something to us here like that. That's why when we heard on the news this morning that this was going to be open to the public, I said, 'This is a must. We've got to pay our respects."
Pentagon officials estimate that between 1,500 and 2,000 people today viewed the American Heroes Memorial.
The public today "felt excited, you know, to see a 9/11 memorial," said Marine Sgt. Kelvin Avelar. "I mean, I can see it in their faces today. You know, they're pretty excited that they get a chance to do this."
Avelar himself has volunteered twice for overseas service in Iraq and Afghanistan. He assigned in Washington area now. Avelar's wife also is a Marine, and the couple has twin daughters who will turn 4 years old in October.