In Prince George’s County, the pain lingers from the loss of 23 on Sept. 11, 2001
By Avis Thomas-Lester,
They had little in common that day except that they lived in Prince George’s County and died at the Pentagon.
The youngest was 3 years old, little Dana Falkenberg of University Park, who was headed to Australia with her sister, Zoe, 8, and parents, Leslie A. Whittington and Charles S. Falkenberg. The oldest, Hilda E. Taylor, 62, of Forestville, was a sixth-grade teacher at Leckie Elementary School in Southwest Washington.
Like James D. Debeuneure, 58, of Upper Marlboro, a fifth-grade teacher at Ketcham Elementary School in the District, Taylor was headed to California to chaperone a National Geographic field trip. All six died aboard American Airlines Flight 77 as it slammed into the building that symbolized America’s military might.
Seventeen others from Prince George’s died inside, going about their daily work. Their deaths showed the world how tenuous our security was, even at a place like the Pentagon.
“I never even worried about my husband,” said Martha Jackson-Holley, 67, of Upper Marlboro, whose husband of 18 months, Jimmie Ira Holley, 54, a budget analyst for the Army, was among those killed. “It was the Pentagon. You always thought it was secure.”
On Tuesday, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III laid a wreath near the Peace Cross in Bladensburg to honor the dead and memorialize the heavy price paid by the county.
“Like all Americans, I will never forget where I was on 9/11,” said Baker. “To this day, I remain amazed how united the country and Prince George’s County [were], and, to an often unnoticed degree, still are.”
In a statement Friday, Prince George’s County Council Chair Ingrid M. Turner noted that the 23 Prince George’s residents killed represent “the greatest loss of life among the jurisdictions in this region.”
“While the pain continues, we want their families to know that we will never forget their ultimate sacrifice, and we will always remember their heroism,” she said.
In light of recent threats and the 10th anniversary of the nation’s worst terrorist disaster, some local residents are jittery about Sunday’s Washington Redskins game at FedEx Field in Landover.
The Skins are scheduled to play the New York Giants.
While law enforcement officials in Prince George’s fretted about security, those who lost loved ones in the Pentagon focused on surviving another round of ceremonies to commemorate the dead.
In interviews, they talked about moving on, saying it had been very difficult to do so. Several have relocated, like Teresa Russell, 60, formerly of Oxon Hill. The widow of Robert E. Russell, 52, a civilian budget analyst for the Army, found that living locally brought back too many memories.
Some have stayed away, like Allan Yokum, 64, father of Kevin W. Yokum, 27, of New Carrollton, a sailor who worked as an information systems technician at the Pentagon. The elder Yokum has ventured to the District from his home in Lake Charles, La., only once since the third of his four children was killed.
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Jackson-Holley awoke two days before the 10th anniversary, got dressed and prayed for strength to make it through yet another program to mark the deaths that were caused on that awful day.
She was headed to the Pentagon for a program by the Office of the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Army to honor the service members who had died, including 11 from Prince George’s.
As she applied makeup and fixed her hair, she thought back on how much pleasure her husband had taken in his appearance. A dapper man with a penchant for wearing immaculate suits and well-shined shoes, Jimmie Ira Holley had always presented a striking picture as he moved through the Pentagon.
Jackson-Holley shed a few tears on the Metro ride over. “These kinds of things are so hard,” she said of the ceremony, touching the corner of each eye with a tissue. “They just make me realize how much I still miss him. We have to be here for him, but it is hard.”
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Teresa Russell will not attend programs this week.
“I'm living quietly in Fayetteville, North Carolina,” she said last week. “It's peaceful and away from all the memories.”
The beautiful, pale pink Victorian in Oxon Hill that was her home was the perfect backdrop for the happy life she shared with her husband. They had three great kids — Cydne, then 30, Robert Jr., then 28, and Valerie, who was in high school.
Valerie and Robert Jr. have managed to go on. She graduated from Columbia University and works in cancer research in New York. Robert Jr. and his wife live in Warrenton, run a business together and have seven children.
Cydne has had a difficult time. “My husband’s death really messed her up emotionally and in every other way,” Russell said. “She and her husband got separated, then divorced. She has three kids. She moved down here, but was unable to find a job. She was especially close to her father and, since his death, she just can't get herself together.”
Russell hasn’t attended a 9/11 ceremony since 2007.
“I tried to isolate myself from all of that to get away from the sadness and the loss,” she said.
She misses her husband. She misses that life. She misses the historic house that she and her husband spent years renovating in hopes of growing old together there. She sold it in 2007.
“It was everything we wanted, but when you have nobody to share it with, it just becomes a burden,” she said.
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Allan Yokum’s den in his home in Louisiana is one of the few rooms in the house where there is no picture of his son Kevin.
“There are pictures of him in the living room, in our bedroom, even in the kitchen,” he said. “This is my special room. I don’t know why they didn’t put his picture in here.”
In an hour-long interview, Yokum never said his son’s name. He talked about how proud he was of the young man who, like so many others, joined the military for the chance to see something other than the small town that sits on Interstate 10, a stone’s throw from the Texas line and the Gulf of Mexico, where he grew up.
“He enjoyed working at the Pentagon,” Yokum recalled. “He had just come off a ship. That was his first land duty.”
He hasn’t needed to see Washington since his only post-9/11 visit, although he pays attention to developments surrounding the anniversary. He’ll attend a ceremony the city of Lake Charles is holding Sunday to honor Kevin and a woman from nearby Sulphur, La., who also died that day.
Then he’ll take his wife of 42 years, Beulah, and the rest of his family home to try to forget the pain.
“It was kind of rough when it first happened,” he said. “As time goes on, it gets easier. Until the day.”
Rebecca Lightbourne of Capital Heights is planning to head to Baltimore on Sunday for a program at the Inner Harbor. She’s also planning to attend services at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Fort Washington, where the Rev. Grainger Browning Jr. is planning a special presentation on behalf of her daughter, Samantha Lightbourne-Allen, 36, of Forestville, an Army budget analyst who attended the church and had her funeral there after she died at the Pentagon.
Lightbourne said the funeral for her husband of 47 years, Raymond Lightbourne, was also held there after he died in January of heart disease at age 91. She said she thinks the heart ailment was caused by his deep grief. He visited their daughter’s grave often, sometimes playing gospel music from the family van.
“When we were going out of town, the cemetery was the last stop on the way out, and it was the first place he went when we came back,” she said. “He even went on Christmas. I don’t care how many people were here, he was going to the cemetery. It was just something that he had to do. He just grieved so much he couldn’t get over it.”
Lightbourne said she decorates and goes through the motions at Christmas for her daughter’s children, John Allen, 26, and Samantha Brittnia, 22, and Brittnia’s baby, A’Zariah, but the joy is gone.
“When she died, it tore our family apart,” said Lightbourne, 67. “We’ve never been the same.”