A Larger-Than-Life Father, a Larger-Than-Life Loss

Five years can be a blink of an eye, or an unbearable eternity, depending on your perspective.

For Lorraine Dixon of Sandgates, Md., who lost her father John Yamnicky in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the past five years have been a little bit of both.

“Five years is nothing to me,” Dixon said. “For me, every year is the same. I still live it every day. It was like it was yesterday.”

Five years have come and gone, and Dixon, 42, still cannot talk long about her father before tears strangle her voice. Everyday life is a minefield of painful triggers — a news report of a plane crash, a generic e-mail reminding people never to forget the victims of the attack, a million small things that provoke a memory of her father.

“You’re just smashed back into it,” she said.

This time of year is particularly rough.

"Right around August, I start getting worked up," she said.

For Dixon's mother Jann Yamnicky, five years has not been long enough to adjust to life without the man to whom she was married for nearly 42 years. There may never be enough time.

"I don't know if at my age, I'll ever get over it," Jann Yamnicky, who is in her seventies, said. It's the early evenings, when her husband would come home from work and the couple would share stories of their day, that are the toughest. More than anything, she is lonesome for his company. Her children stop by, but it's not the same as having her husband, her lifetime companion.

"It's that time of day when he would come home," she said. "The evenings are still really, really hard."

Asked if having such a personal tragedy inextricably tied to such a public catastrophe has made moving on more difficult, Dixon said that rather than being a burden, the association is vitally significant to her.

“This is my personal pain, but I kind of feel like the world is forgetting,” she said.

“I don’t want to disassociate myself [from Sept. 11] at all,” she said. “I don’t want this to be swept under the carpet. I don’t want people to become blasé about it,” she said.

"It's difficult going back over 9/11, but I don't want it forgotten," Jann Yamnicky said. She does not like attending official Sept. 11 events because it "brings it all back in a bad way," she said, but thinks it's important for the country to stay focused on what happened that day.

"It changed my whole life. It changed life here in America," she said. "I am still adjusting."

John D. Yamnicky, Sr. was a big man, with a big life to match.

He was a strapping high school football player with the grades to earn a scholarship to Princeton, and the guts to turn it down to instead attend the U.S. Naval Academy.

He was a career naval officer whose service spanned the Korean and Vietnam wars and a stint as the director of the test pilot school at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in southern Maryland. He retired as a captain rather than accept a promotion to admiral so that he could spend more time with his four children.

He was a fearless military test pilot who survived five crash landings and was selected into the astronaut program, only to be passed over at the last minute because he was just too big.

He was a master grill man who presided over family barbecues cooking up his legendary ribs and swigging beers with his four grown children, a burly grandfather who wore an eye patch emblazoned with a dragon, who’d get down on the floor to let his small grandchildren climb and tumble all over him.

John Yamnicky was 71 years-old, the oldest passenger aboard American Flight 77 bound for Los Angeles, when hijackers flew the plane into the Pentagon. For the family of a test pilot, his death was not only tragic, it was cruelly ironic.

"I never did worry about him when he was flying. I had such confidence in his ability," said Jann Yamnicky. "He always said he would die in a plane crash, so when he quit, it was a relief."

Five years later, his larger than life presence lives on in the yawning void he left behind.

"There is so much I thought I could take care of that I can't take care of without John," said Jann Yamnicky, who still resides on the sprawling, 10-acre farm in Waldorf, Md., where she and John settled in 1972. "It will always be hard to get on without him," she said. Though the farm is a lot of work, and can feel isolating, she said the horses she and her daughter, Jennifer, are raising there give her a reason to get up in the morning.

"I have to get up to feed the horses, and that's a good thing, because sometimes I don't want to," she said.

After her father's death, Dixon said, the family received an outpouring of “If it weren’t for John…” letters detailing the many ways Yamnicky had touched the lives of his friends and colleagues. The correspondence has been one of her few comforts, Dixon said, confirming that others saw her father the way she did.

“He was just a super individual. He was funny,” she said. “Daddy was just one of those people that made an impact on so many people’s lives."

John Yamnicky went to work in the defense industry after his military retirement, and Dixon, a financial analyst, followed her father into the field. At the time of his death, they worked for the same Lexington, Md., defense contractor, Veridian Corp., in the same building, on the same floor. She would pass by him every day in the hall.

“In my job, I win a lot of awards,” she said. “Daddy was in the same industry. He was really the only person who could understand,” she said.

But the hardest part of the past five years, she said, has been the mental catalogue she keeps of all the conversations she cannot have with him. She couldn’t tell him that her son made the basketball team. She couldn’t tell him that her young daughter was taking a trip to Australia—a country her father and mother, avid travelers, had loved.

When her children all did very well on standardized school testing, she couldn’t tell him about it — or thank him for footing the bill for their private schools.

“I miss him most when I just want to say, 'Hey Daddy, guess what?' I miss being able to tell him about these things,” she said.

Every year, she collects and stockpiles the newspaper coverage surrounding Sept. 11. This archive clutters the home she shares with her husband Jim and her three children because she keeps the entire newspaper — she can’t make clippings because she can’t actually make herself read the stories. She does not live very far from her father’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, but she has not been able to bring herself to visit since the funeral.

“I just…can’t,” she said, her voice thick with tears. “I keep saying every year, you should go…[but] I’m afraid. To me, it’s just like yesterday,” she said.

Dixon is not the only one of her three siblings who took a career cue from her father. They all have forged careers in defense, aerospace or the military. Her brother Mark works for aircraft manufacturer Boeing, and brother John David runs a company called Pentagon Realty Services. Jennifer Yamnicky, 39, is a tech sargeant in the Air National Guard Reserves, and works out of Andrews Air Force Base. On the day of the attacks, she watched the Pentagon burn from her post, and initially refused to believe her father was on the plane. She was called up for duty in the months following the attacks, and after receiving several years of waivers, was deployed overseas for four months.

Though Dixon no longer works for Veridian, her father’s legacy in the industry is inescapable. Two years ago, her work required her to attend a meeting at the Pentagon. She was so frightened to return to the site of the crash, she had to call her sister to take her to the meeting, and she has not been back since.

More recently, she walked into a meeting at a different company, only to be confronted with a picture of her father hanging on the wall.

The Yamnicky family has attempted different ways of coping with their loss, but life has not always cooperated. On the second anniversary of the attack, the family decided against marking Sept. 11 at the Pentagon commemoration, as they had done the previous year. Instead, they gathered at a local restaurant to celebrate John Yamnicky’s life. A close family friend who attended the party was killed in a car accident on the way home from the event. For Dixon, the small window of possible healing that opened that night slammed shut.

The following year, Dixon, her husband and children started a tradition of spending Sept. 11 on a family vacation in Virginia Beach, Va. It was her husband’s idea, reminding her that she was not alone in her pain.

“He said, ‘we lost him too’,” Dixon said. “It’s a thing we now look forward to every year.”

For Jann Yamnicky, coping is less about the past than it is the future, facing alone what was supposed to be a retirement they shared.

"My social life with John was pretty much all based on him," she said. He was the out-going one, the people person.

"I just followed along behind him and I'm just not comfortable going places without him," she said.

Her social life now revolves almost exclusively around her children and grandchildren. She continues to work as a nurse part-time, for no other reason than to get out and see people.

She has long-term care insurance so that she can always remain on her farm.

"We had always planned on taking care of each other," she said.

Still, life for Sept. 11 survivors can sometimes be as surreal and unfathomable as the attacks themselves.

To help identify Yamnicky's remains, the FBI took DNA samples from the family. Dixon was shocked to learn that her mother had been provided with an urn of her father's ashes.

"How is that even possible?" she marveled.

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Dixon admits that she has difficulty coming to terms with the loss, and said her grief has made her “selfish.” She hears about other families experiencing death and tragedy, but said she has a hard time feeling sympathy for them.

Recently, when she heard that a young soldier from her town had been killed in Iraq, she struggled to feel for the family. Her loss, she said, always seems somehow to be so much worse.

Dixon said she is tortured by the thought of her father’s final moments. As an experienced Navy pilot with extensive combat experience and training, her father would have known exactly what was happening, she said.

“I knew Daddy, and I know he knew,” she said.