Pentagon Families Persevere, Reflect

A total of 184 people perished in the explosion and ensuing inferno that occurred when a plane hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11 of last year.

Of that number, 125 people were at the giant military headquarters outside of Washington, D.C.

The 59 passengers and crew aboard American Airlines Flight 77 perished as well. The victims left behind thousands of family members and 126 children under the age of 18.

Nonetheless, Pentagon officials at the time realized it could have been worse. The plane could have hit a more populated part of the building. The offices that were hit had been recently fitted with improved fire safety and sprinkler systems, which contained the blaze much more effectively.

In the days, weeks and months after the attacks, the Pentagon community did what it does best: soldier on in the face of death and disaster. But only now, on the precipice of the one-year commemoration of the attacks, are many who work at the world’s largest office building feeling the full emotional impact of what happened.

"That’s my personal sense," said Ruby Brown, director of the Arlington Community Resilience Project, which was set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency last year. The group over the weekend coordinated the "We Remember Walk," which joined for the first time the Pentagon, Washington and Pennsylvania victims’ families.

"Some people in the press here have put out the message that we need to get over it, we lost significantly less than the people in New York," Brown continued. "Tell that to the woman who lost her mother in the Pentagon, who walked with us over the weekend."

One man close to the post-Sept. 11 outreach said there had been feelings the Pentagon victims were somewhat forgotten by some Americans, though volunteering and donations to the greater Washington, D.C., area have been extraordinary.

"There was a sense that people here were being overshadowed," by the horror that befell New York, the man said. "But in practice, the people in the region really stepped up to the plate and tried to help those families who were affected."

But it’s more than just the local area responding. Money from around the nation has also been pouring in, said Pentagon officials, proving the spotlight doesn’t need to be on their corner of the world for good Samaritans to come forward.

"We have been touched by so many countries in terms of generosity, people wanting to do something in support," said Meg Falk, a Pentagon official working with the family assistance program there. Among the gifts are everything from quilts and teddy bears to "a thousand origami cranes," sent over by Japanese well wishers.

"I think that the families feel well supported by the outpouring of support," said Falk, "whether it's been in the form of small stained glass angels sent to them, or small checks from people just wanting to do their part for the families."

A survivors fund has raised more than $20 million dollars for Pentagon victims and families, and is currently assisting almost 400 families in the region, as well as 26 other states and overseas. The fund, set up through the Northern Virginia Family Services, has been overwhelmed with donations, said director E. Larry Shaw.

"We’ve been here for 75 years and never in our history have we ever been in this position," he said. "Tons of resources came forward that we had no idea existed," he noted.

Mike Landers, deputy national director of the YMCA Armed Forces, said his group raised $850,000 immediately following the attacks. The group has since issued 116 $10,000 bonds, with a face value of $1.6 million, for the children of the victims. More money was left in reserve for children born after Sept. 11, and the group has helped to pay college tuition for the older children.

"I think we were surprised at the level of outpouring," said Landers. "People were so generous, they gave their hearts."