9/11 aftermath leads one Pentagon survivor out of limbo and to a life improved


Heinz and Nora Linderman met after the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.They were married in the Pentagon chapel. (Bonnie Jo Mount/WASHINGTON POST)
September 3, 2011

Third in a series.

Heinz Linderman steps aside as a tour group peers into the Pentagon Memorial Chapel. It is a weekday afternoon, and he has stopped by with his wife to visit the Pentagon’s most sacred corner, where the words “United in Memory Sept. 11, 2001” have been crafted into a circular pane of red, white and blue stained glass.

“This chapel was created in the aftermath of September 11th,” the tour guide’s voice booms through the narrow space.

Heinz, 55, knows this place so well that he could have given the tour himself. This is the wall that was rebuilt at the spot where the jetliner hit. Here, just outside the chapel doors, is a flag that was draped over a casket at Arlington National Cemetery during a ceremony honoring the 184 victims.

And here, in front of the chapel’s first pew, is where he stood before a minister and exchanged marriage vows with the woman he calls “my Nora,” the wife he never would have met but for 9/11.

Heinz has been coming to the chapel since it opened in 2002, to sit in the cool, dimly lit room, clear his mind and give thanks. He was among the fortunate that day. He was not hurt in the terrorist attack. He did not personally know anyone who died. He was just one of about 20,000 people at work in the Pentagon on a Tuesday morning.

And still, his life was forever altered. Before that day, he was just a bespectacled IT guy who was unremarkable in most ways; a lonely bachelor with no one to go home to.

After, he was one of the Pentagon’s survivors; a husband; a father.

“The best parts of my life have come because of [9/11],” he says, and his cheeks flush because even now it feels blasphemous to admit. “There were so many other people who lost so much, but I gained.”

*

In the chapel’s memorial, Nora flips through a book of tributes to 9/11 victims and pauses over a photograph of a 40-year old Army officer whose life had briefly intersected with Heinz’s. She was a stranger in need; he was one of the many who scrambled to help. Nora shows him the photo.

“There she is,” he says, looking at the woman in a uniform, hair pulled back, smiling slightly.

He thought he could help save her when doctors at the triage center put her into the back of his station wagon because all of the emergency vehicles were full. She had been choking on smoke, nearly unconscious. A doctor pumped her chest as Heinz sped the 51 / miles to Virginia Hospital Center.

Heinz had begun that day in the basement clinic where he worked as a civilian contractor. It was a few minutes before 10 a.m. when a man walked into the clinic with blood gushing from his face.

At first, Heinz thought it was just a drill. Then he and his co-workers realized that the Pentagon had been attacked.

They all jumped to action. Heinz, a tall, thick man with wide shoulders, was told to grab a chest of pharmaceuticals. He raced to the west side of the building and toward the wounded. He felt brave as he ran into the smoke while others tried to escape it, and then rushed to the hospital.

“She was breathing when we dropped her off,” he says. Later, he learned that Karen Wagner had died.

“She was an attractive lieutenant colonel, like my Nora,” he says. “She had family. What can you tell them to make it better?”

*

In the months after the attack, Heinz often went to the Pentagon courtyard to smoke cigarettes and watch the scarred wedge of the building being repaired. The area is a park amid a concrete jungle, lined in magnolia trees.

It was there that he first spotted Nora Faust, in late 2002.

The petite blonde was a reservist based in Pleasantville, N.J., who had been called up to work at the Pentagon’s Army Operations Center. She arrived a year after the attack, assigned to help mobilize the troops that would be heading to Afghanistan. “I had no problem going back into boots,” she said.

In the courtyard, she and Heinz connected. They debated esoteric subjects at the spot he called “the philosopher’s corner.” Soon, he began peering out of his office window into the courtyard to see whether she was there.

Heinz had a daughter and had long wanted a son. Nora had three children, two boys and a girl. She invited him for dinner and was cooking gravy and a pot roast when her sons started to fight and her chocolate Labrador began to bark.

“You’ve got a very busy house,” he told her. Her term for it was “the zoo.”

His home was the opposite. His life was a quiet trek between the Pentagon and a Burke condo close to his elderly mother. His daughter lived with her mother. He read spy novels in the evening. He calls it his “stiff and crotchety” period. He was not sure it would ever end.

At first, Nora, stung by divorce, was indifferent to the idea of getting remarried. When the opportunity came to move her children to the Army base at Heidelberg, Germany, in 2005, she took it, leaving Heinz behind.

But he visited every two months, and in the spring of 2006, he arrived with an engagement ring. On a bridge over the Rhine River, he asked Nora to marry him.

The details were simple. They would be wed at the 9/11 memorial chapel.

“The Pentagon was the natural decision. It was where we met,” Heinz says.

“There was no discussion,” Nora recalls.

The couple were married that August in a modest ceremony officiated by a retired military chaplain. Their children were there, and so was Heinz’s mother. A couple dozen co-workers filed into the chapel’s 91 seats. Tourists peered in along their walk through the building.

Amid the joy of the day were reminders of tragedy. One wedding guest had lost dozens of co-workers in the attack. Most of those who came wore military fatigues, and a small American flag decorated the reception room.

Nora wore a pale green dress and carried yellow and pink roses. She was nervous.

Heinz thought she looked beautiful.

Out of the charred remains of the building, the chapel had become a scene of promise.

*

Heinz still reports for work at the Pentagon. Nora retired on disability in June.

He carries a long scar down the middle of his chest from a heart surgery he had in 2009. It was Nora who raced him to the hospital and watched over him when doctors induced a coma that kept him unconscious for five weeks.

Nora was with him the whole time. She talked to him while he was out, giving him updates on the children and saying over and over, “Don’t you die on me.”

It took him six months to recover, surrounded by his new family and the barking dogs in their cozy Fairfax townhouse. When it came time for him to return to work, Nora took him on several practice runs so she could make sure he had the strength to walk from the parking lot to his office.

Now she returns from time to time to have lunch with him. They share sandwiches and reconnect with friends.

Other times, it is just Heinz in this building, on his own tour. He walks through the clinic where he was working that day. He passes by the Pentagon’s jewelry store where he bought Nora’s first sweetheart ring. He goes to the chapel and sits, and if tourists are passing by, what they’ll see is a fortunate man giving thanks.

First in the series: 9/11 widow still trying to find her new normal

Second in the series: Twin misses his other half

Fourth in the series: After 9/11, security guard on high alert at golf course

Fifth in the series: Flight attendant still feels at home up in the sky

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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