“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
2 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.