After 9/11, woman who was at Pentagon remains skeptical


April Gallop was in the Pentagon with her son, Elisha, on Sept. 11, 2001. (Bonnie Jo Mount/WASHINGTON POST)
September 9, 2011

Ninth in a series.

“You want to play in the back yard, son?” April Gallop says to the lanky 10-year-old tailing her on the front walk of a neat frame house in a Richmond suburb. “You go around; I’ll be right there.”

Elisha Gallop wears a straw hat and flip-flops in the heat of a July afternoon. He gives his mom a smile and runs to lift a heavy padlock from a side gate. The half-finished fence, being built by volunteers, remains open at the rear; anyone could walk in. But she still craves the reassuring click of a solid padlock.

“I won’t let him outside by himself,” Gallop says in a low voice, looking down the street. A woman walks her dog across the way, not glancing over, not giving a neighborly wave. “There have been some comments.”

Gallop leans against her car, a cherry-red BMW with a license plate that reads “A OVRCMER” and a fuel door that is slightly ajar.

“Now who’s been messing with this?” she murmurs, pushing it closed, scanning the yard again.

A “No Trespassing” sign is tucked into a trellis. Another is planted by the door. A third, askew between the glass and the closed blinds of a front window, warns that the property is under video surveillance. On a tidy, sunny block, it’s a house in a defensive crouch.

Gallop leans against the car and pulls papers from an envelope that a Chesterfield County deputy sheriff hand-delivered a few hours earlier. It’s another threat from the landlord.

“Why is this happening?” she asks.

The lease payments are up to date, paid during the past six years by a Pentagon Sept. 11 survivors’ fund. She thought she was renting to own, but now the property owner wants the house back. Gallop has an appointment with a lawyer the next morning. A new one. Is this the sixth or the seventh? It’s hard to remember all the lawsuits filed, the claims denied, the appeals that go ’round and ’round.

“Evidently he has formed some kind of opinion about me,” she says of the owner.

Maybe he’s like the neighbor who spit on her driveway a few months ago as Gallop hustled back behind the lowered blinds, away from the growing wariness of the neighborhood, ignoring the invitation to explain her “un-American” views and this business of Gallop v. Cheney.

“I think they Googled ‘April Gallop’ and didn’t like what they saw,” she says.

Ten years ago, there was no contrail of derision attached to her name. That was before she had fought with government agencies and private charities and school systems and she hadn’t yet sued airlines and banks and Osama bin Laden and the highest officials in the United States.

Before she had formally accused her government of making up that story about an airliner crashing into her Pentagon office.

She holds up her hands.

“All I’m doing is asking questions. When you walk out barefoot and you don’t step on any plane parts. . . .

The hands come down, tired.

“Lord, help me make sense of this.”

Things stopped making sense on that brilliant September morning just as she pushed the button on her computer to start the day. In that moment, everything secure and understandable in the world fell on her head in a deafening avalanche of ceiling tiles and body parts.

She doesn’t know how long she was out. “Oh my God, am I in hell?” she wondered as her eyes strained to decipher the jagged heaps of wallboard and office furniture, the computers spitting sparks, the legs and arms sprouting bizarrely from the debris, some waving for help, others crazy-broken and still.

The sound was as demonic as the scene, a sustained wail of agony and panic. And then beneath that, muffled and weak, she heard . . . what? . . . a baby? “Oh my God, is there a baby in hell?” she asked.

A baby. Elisha.

On her first day back from maternity leave, her boss had asked the new single mother to come straight to the office, newborn and all. Just handle a bit of urgent paperwork and then take little Elisha Zion to the Pentagon day-care center.

He had been sleeping in his stroller next to her desk.

She pushed through the crust of chairs and cabinets and the pain that felt like hammers pounding her skull and spine. Others were upright now, shouting, shoving rubble away from the loudest screams. She tried to help. The only light was a flare of gritty sun from a hole high above the mountains of debris.

Finally she found the place where the feeble cry was the clearest. She reached into the rubble, shouldered aside rocks of concrete and felt cotton on her fingertips. She pulled out her 10-week-old son by his onesie.

“Elisha,” she calls into the back yard. His hat pops over the edge of the playground set that the VFW volunteers brought a few years ago. She calls them “my angels,” folks who still think of her simply as a hallowed Sept. 11 survivor, her son as a miracle baby.

The boy comes up. “Yes, ma’am?”

“Let’s go see if they’ve picked the squash. Lock the gates now.”

They step around a pile of new gardening stuff that blocks the front walk, lying untouched where the angels left it in May: bags of mulch, some withering plants, a bottle of Roundup. Gallop doesn’t like being in the yard enough to do much work on it.

But they drive a few miles to the garden of their church, Mount Gilead Full Gospel, a fenced acre of earth free of peering neighbors.

Elisha trots ahead and opens the gate, running along the furrows.

“He’ll walk up and down here all night if I let him,” Gallop says.

There is nothing visible to mark Elisha’s early trauma. He’s lean and agile, with wide brown eyes and a smile dimpled and gleaming. He has head shots on file with a local modeling agency.

But there are subtler echoes of that day, she says. He learns slowly, his retention is soft. Repeat, repeat, repeat, or the lessons fade. Every few months, his “glitch” shows up; he’ll have trouble telling whether a door is open or the page of a book is right-side up. His teachers put him in a special education class when he was 6, but Gallop took him out halfway through the year when he began to regress. “Suddenly he didn’t want to feed himself,” she said. “I couldn’t do that to my son.”

Now she strings together a battery of private teachers, some volunteer and some paid, who teach Elisha for six hours each day at a public library. He’s reading at grade level. On Fridays, he learns piano, guitar and violin. He’s taking figure-skating lessons.

“It was just one more fight,” Gallop says of her grapples with the school system. “I never imagined in a thousand years everything would be so hard.”

They told her it wouldn’t be. From the time she woke up on the grass outside the Pentagon, people told her she and her son would be taken care of. Politicians on TV said it was the nation’s duty to care for the victims; functionaries in hotel meeting rooms across Northern Virginia assured her and other survivors that the money was coming, the systems in place.

But Gallop says those well-intentioned systems failed her and the boy she had carried over the smoking rubble to that high shaft of sunlight above. That had looked like the way to safety.

One by one, she became enmeshed in paperwork tangles, bureaucratic standoffs, exhausting delays, with the Army, the Veterans Affairs Department, the Pentagon Survivors’ Fund.

She did receive help, the housing aid and vouchers for groceries. Anonymous donors gave tens of thousands that paid for Elisha’s rehabilitation costs and other needs.

But 10 years on, Gallop says confusion about what support agencies would and wouldn’t cover has left her deeply in debt and with no income other than her pension and the spotty child-support payments she receives from Elisha’s father, a soldier. Everything else is pending: settlements from lawsuits, disputed back pay, a star-crossed application for a VA self-employment grant.

“Right now, it’s pretty close to the bone,” she says. “Thank God for coupons.”

Gallop acknowledges that she is not blameless in the bureaucratic relationships that soured one after another. She was “a yeller,” she says, before a therapist helped her learn coping skills.

And sometimes she just disappears. “If I’m feeling bad, I don’t work,” Gallop says. “I won’t call back for a few days. But I told them that in the beginning. So I’m a complainer. Aren’t you trained to deal with that?”

She watches Elisha, only his hat visible cruising along the top of the cornstalks.

“I don’t care. I’ve got my son. I am going to fight for my benefits.”

At that moment, a timer clicks and sprinklers launch twin arcs of water over the crops, and over the Gallops.

The mother shrieks and speed-walks toward the gate, giggling. The boy whoops and runs back and forth, chasing the drops.

She had assumed it was a bomb. Maybe even a bomb attached to her computer. She had pushed the button and the place had blown up.

But an airplane?

How could that be?

It was an article of Army faith to her that she was working in the most secure building in the world. They had told her that over and over when she was transferred from Germany to the Pentagon in 2000, the days of briefings about air defenses, early warning systems, impregnable security. They said it couldn’t happen.

And then it did happen, and since then she has wondered, “Where was the plane?” The scene is still vivid in her nightmares: rubble, yes, but no aircraft wreckage; smoke and flames, but no jet-fuel inferno.

“I was 50 feet from the impact zone,” Gallop says. “The engine should have been in my lap.”

But it wasn’t.

She waited for clarity that wouldn’t come, not with the lengthening trail of official statements, not with the 9/11 Commission report, the DNA matches from the passengers of American Airlines Flight 77.

She didn’t see a plane. They said it couldn’t happen. No one is taking responsibility.

She knows they call her crazy on the Internet, or an opportunist seeking attention or money.

But she says she doesn’t enjoy being a darling of 9/11 truthers, the skeptic who was there. She doesn’t spend much time on their Web sites and has rarely watched video from the twin towers or the Pentagon, either.

“It’s hard for me to look at,” she says, patting her chest with a stricken expression. “It makes me cry.”

And money? Well, she needs money. She is clipping coupons and going to midnight sales at the PX at Richmond’s Fort Lee and waiting on payoffs that are always a few more documents away.

Gallop joined a class-action lawsuit that accused Riggs Bank of laundering money for the terrorists, and another that named pages of defendants around the Muslim world, including Bin Laden. Both were dismissed.

She is in the process of settling a suit against American Airlines. On instructions from her attorney, she won’t discuss it. But she does not step around the incongruity of suing for damages over the plane that she contends did not hit the Pentagon.

“If there are claims out there that these things took place that day, the airlines are liable,” she says. “If they are liable, I’m one of the victims. I have to do that for my son.”

The two of them are waiting on orders of Mongolian beef at a Noodles and Co. across the street from the law offices where they’ve been for the past two hours. Gallop wears a black T-shirt with “Women of P.O.W.E.R.” spelled out in rhinestones.

Elisha sits quietly now, next to his mother, fiddling with chopsticks and straw wrappers and not paying much attention to the litany of doubts and frustrations he has heard hundreds of times before.

When the food arrives, they hook pinkies. “Lord Jesus, I thank you for this meal,” Elisha says.

The two are rarely apart. She used to make “Gallop Family Team” badges for their shirts. When he was 7, she began coaching him on his role: cleaning up after himself and being patient during Mommy’s long talks with bureaucrats, landlords, lawyers.

It took her months to find an attorney willing to go to the top, to try to get a vice president, a defense secretary, a Joint Chiefs chairman at the table for sworn discovery.

William Veale, a former public defender from Walnut Creek, Calif., and a founder of the Center for 9/11 Justice, agreed. They filed Gallop v. Cheney in 2008.

The suit asserted that the story about a hijacked plane hitting the Pentagon “is false,” that the defendants were “complicit” in the attacks because they wanted to create conditions that would allow them to reassert “U.S. military power abroad, particularly in Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and other oil-producing areas.”

Gallop says she isn’t sure about all the claims in the suit that bears her name. The lawyers wrote them.

“I can’t say I absolutely agree with everything in the lawsuit,” she says. “But I do think the case should be allowed to get to discovery.”

The suit was thrown out as frivolous in 2010. An appeals court upheld the dismissal in April. A motion to reconsider was denied in July.

“We’re appealing,” Gallop says. The last option is the U.S. Supreme Court.

She looks at her son struggling with the chopsticks. “We’re going to be fine.”

After lunch, they walk to a comic-book store. Now Elisha is bouncing. After hours of dutiful calm, he runs ahead, then runs back to the door to hold it open for his mother, then runs off again.

He shops a bookstore the way he walks the garden, up and down every aisle, hardly stopping. In a minute, he has a handful of comic books, a minute later he has returned those and picked up some others.

Finally, he is back with the one he wants most of all. Just one. His mother looks through her purse.

“I left my money at home,” she says.

Elisha glances at the comic. “That’s okay,” he says. “I’ll get it next time.”

He skips two aisles over and returns it to the exact slot where he had found it.

On the slow, hot walk across the parking lot, Elisha says that if he could be a comic-book hero, a hero with a super power, he’d choose invisibility. Good for hide-and-seek.

His mother walks slowly, limping a bit in the heat. “Super strength,” she says.

“You want super strength?” Elisha asks.

She smiles down at him.

“I could do it all!” she says.

“You could fly!” he says, grabbing her hand, pulling her off her stride.

“I would fly to the VA office,” she says, starting to laugh. “I’d fly to the VA and I wouldn’t even sit down. I’d just float in the air.”

They are at a stoplight. Her son is holding her hand, looking up at her face.

“ ‘Won’t you have a seat, Ms. Gallop,’ ” she says in a timid voice, imagining what they would say to this woman floating in the air.

“No!” she thunders, and now both she and Elisha are laughing and hanging onto each other as they cross the street, back to the lawyer’s office, back to a world in which you can touch a computer key and a bomb goes off.

Or was it a missile?

Or was it a plane?

Back to trying to make sense of it all.

First in the series: Trying to find the new normal

Second in the series: Twin misses his other half

Third in the series: Brought together by catastrophe

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

Fifth in the series: Still feeling at home up in the sky

Sixth in the series: After loss, working to fill the void

Seventh in the series: The wounded man

Eighth in the series: Living with ‘if only’

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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