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3 Years Later, Deliverance Elusive

Pentagon Survivors and Rescuers Endure Daily Reminders of Trauma

By Susan Levine and Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 11, 2004; Page A01

Valecia "Chee Chee" Parker remains a shadow of the woman she was on Sept. 11, 2001 -- a civilian employee in Army personnel management, a buff, competitive bodybuilder.

She was on the phone in her Pentagon office when the world exploded that flawless morning three years ago, she was buried under a jumble of desks in her Pentagon office. A co-worker heard her pleading, "Jesus, help me! Help me, Jesus!" searched through the rubble and dragged her out.

April Gallop and her son, Elisha, now 3, were at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 -- her first day back from maternity leave. Both were hurt. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

Parker was soaked with jet fuel that made her legs feel on fire. Her skin eventually healed without grafts. Yet her other injuries -- neck, back, shoulder, head -- proved more tenacious. They left her with significant memory lapses. She had to relearn how to use her keyboard. She stumbled through the steps of forwarding a telephone call.

When it became apparent that she could not resume her job, Parker was reassigned to a Pentagon office where she folded boxes and was told to keep the place tidy. She left after overhearing another employee complain that she made things messier and had to be treated like a child.

Perhaps much of the country has moved on. But for people such as Parker, moving on is still a daily, heart-aching effort. On the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks, their healing is far from over.

This they share not only with the families of the 184 men, women and children who died at the Pentagon, but also with many of the others left behind -- co-workers who escaped through the flames, as well as the firefighters and paramedics who helped save them.

Even some rescuers' families struggle. One firefighter's daughter routinely cries when her father gets ready for his shift.

"I know there are people out there suffering," said Capt. Mike Staples of the Arlington County Fire Department.

Everyday things can trigger their memories. The scream of sirens. A plane low overhead. The fusty odor of wet drywall. And suddenly, said April Gallop, "it's like you're there all over again."

Trapped again in a collapsed office in the Pentagon, choking on the thick, roiling blackness, searching desperately for a way out.

"You walk away," she explained, "but you become the walking wounded."

Though the aftermath of 9/11 has repeatedly revealed human resilience, fault lines have become more apparent. Some employees have not come back because their bodies and psyches were so badly damaged. Others tried but ultimately had to surrender to their new reality.

Parker now gets by on half her former salary through worker's compensation. She sees a speech therapist, a neurologist, an ophthalmologist and a psychiatrist. She downs four medications a day. A survivors fund bought her a gym membership and paid for her to train as an exercise instructor. She has not had the strength to start.

Her Landover townhouse reveals the limits of her reconfigured life. Along one wall are boxes of Avon products that she has tried to sell to her neighbors. Parker opens the door to a hall closet-turned-pantry. It is stacked with jars of baby food, dried fruit and other food that needs no cooking.

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