washingtonpost.com
America Marks a Grim Anniversary
President Visits Three Sites Where Nearly 3,000 Died

By Michael Powell, Josh White and Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

In three wounded communities yesterday, the nation commemorated the worst terrorist attack in American history, as bells sounded, thousands murmured prayers and the families of victims once again read the names of their lost loved ones.

On the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 hijackings, there was an aching familiarity to the rituals. In New York, family members recited 2,749 names, punctuated by violins and the wail of bagpipes, to the drawn and tearful faces of the families of the victims.

President Bush joined the commemoration in New York, journeying to Ground Zero on Sunday night to lay a wreath and then sharing Monday breakfast with 75 firefighters at a firehouse, nicknamed Fort Pitt, on the Lower East Side. He later flew to Pennsylvania to lay a wreath in the Shanksville farm field where United Airlines Flight 93 hurtled to Earth, and then he traveled on to the Pentagon.

Families and firefighters and cops in New York filed slowly down ramps into the three-story-deep pit that is Ground Zero, gray slurry walls rising around them. Bells sounded at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. -- the moments when the hijacked planes slammed into the twin towers. On the podium, Carmen Suarez glanced skyward as she finished reading 10 names of those who died.

Her husband, police officer Ramon Suarez, died in those towers.

"If I could build a staircase to heaven I would," Suarez said, "just so I could quickly run up there to have you back in my arms."

Rain fell in Shanksville and cool and clouds cloaked Washington, but in New York it was one of those eerie carbon-copy days: a slight chill of autumn, a cloudless sky, wind tugging at flags, just like five years ago. Except that yesterday, every flag in the city was at half-staff.

Bush and Vice President Cheney paid homage to the dead. And as during the past few weeks, they did not hesitate to try to draw a connection between the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq.

New York Battalion Chief Jim Savastano, who knew 100 of the 343 firefighters who died at Ground Zero, sat next to Bush at the breakfast of scrambled eggs and French toast; he recalls talk of war. "He talked about how he's going to continue the war on terrorism," Savastano said. "He's not going to give up the fight."

Cheney observed the day at the Pentagon, where five years ago American Airlines Flight 77 rocketed into the facade, burrowing its way through the building's outer rings and killing 184 people. Five hundred family and friends of the lost sat in a cold drizzle, listening as speakers mixed soft talk of empathy with blunt calls to support the nation on its two war fronts: Iraq and Afghanistan.

Heads turned as one commercial jet after another streamed over the Pentagon's Mall Terrace, the roar of engines drowning out the voices below and sending a chill of remembrance through the audience.

"There are no words that can soothe your pain and no way that we can truly understand all the sacrifices that you have made," Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the audience.

Cheney's style was more aggressive, as he tossed rhetorical haymakers at critics of the Iraq invasion. "We have no intention," he said, "of ignoring or appeasing history's latest gang of fanatics."

In New York, there was little talk of the war. Recent polls show that 75 percent of the city's residents see no links between the 2001 attacks and the three-year-old war in Iraq. Antiwar sentiment is deeply felt in New York, even by Republicans, polls show.

Jack Lynch went to Ground Zero yesterday with his wife to stand once again in the footprint of those 110-story towers. He recalled searching in that wreckage for the body of his son, Michael, who was a firefighter with Engine 40, Ladder 35, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

"On March 21, 2002, we recovered Michael's body," Lynch said. "His body was entangled with a body of a female. . . . The medical examiner said he was either carrying her or protecting her.

"It was saving grace because we know that Michael . . . died doing something noble."

Lynch wishes he were younger so that he could fight terrorism. But not in Iraq. "Iraq really is the wrong target," he said. "Terrorism is the target and the attitude of those that want to hold us hostage in fear."

Five years out, the emotion is less raw than it was in those first years. One could walk the streets of Manhattan or the District yesterday and sense little amiss. But that impression would be wide off the mark.

In Astoria, Queens, a working-class immigrant community, Joseph Kiss walked beneath the elevated tracks on Broadway. He is a just-retired elevator operator, a white-haired, blue-eyed Croatian immigrant with a gold crucifix. Ask if he still thinks of that day and he nods.

He said his daughter was nearly buried under the wreckage and was rescued several hours after the collapse.

"Every day I think about how I almost lost her, trapped down there in the cement and dust," he said. "I remember calling her and calling, hope she get home.

"I am lucky, though. So many families --" He paused and snapped his fingers. "They look up and they lost the love of their lives."

New York

Lt. Tom Carlstrom, 53, walked one last time in his dress blues along the eastern lip of the gaping hole where this city's two largest towers once stood. He is a New York City firefighter of 25 years' service, or rather he was -- he retired yesterday at 2 p.m.

Five years ago, Carlstrom, a quiet and polite man who stops here to help an old woman navigate a high curb and there to help an old Marine veteran tape a memorial on the fence, was in the North Tower. He was setting up a triage unit in the cavernous lobby when he felt a shaking and heard a roar, like an avalanche. One hundred ten stories were coming down upon him.

"The South Tower had already gone, so we knew this could happen," he said quietly as he stood on Church Street, watching the Emerald Society's bagpipers wet their lips. "I knew I had six, maybe seven seconds."

He ran north on West Street and dived down a side street. Metal beams, clouds of volcanic-like dust and boulders hurtled by. Somehow -- he's not sure how or why -- Carlstrom survived, and as he huddled there he thought of his friends who at that moment were dying.

"I come down every year, to think about my people I couldn't get out of there." He shrugged, helpless. "These memories are never going away, I realize that now."

Each anniversary has its own feel. The first was defiant and heartbreaking, the Fire Department's bagpipers leading a ragtag march of 3,000 firefighters, cops and ordinary citizens into the dawn and across the Brooklyn Bridge to Ground Zero.

This anniversary feels different, the wounds half-cauterized, the neighborhood around Ground Zero rebuilt, shiny, polished. And yet the roses are stuffed in the gates and the photos taped up, and everywhere around Ground Zero there are families with photos of their loved ones on their lapels and purses, slowly walking down the ramp into that deep pit.

There was not a sense this time of a city come to a stop. Many on Church Street hurried to work. But others were there to protest, to talk of conspiracies, to put up art -- and many just to quietly listen as family members read off the names of the dead.

"I worked in the hole a couple of times, and it kind of touched me," Tom Miller, 41, said from behind mirrored sunglasses. He wore biker boots, a T-shirt with a big American flag and a handlebar mustache. He repairs construction cranes, and he drove south on his Harley to the memorial.

"It's just emotional, the destruction, to see people wasted here -- that's just the best way to put it."

Elsewhere the day was given to private remembrance. At Sixth Avenue and Houston Street a powerfully built man in a business suit and sunglasses knelt on the sidewalk, head bowed in front of Engine House 24, which lost eight men on that day.

He got up and walked away and was momentarily startled to be asked his thoughts. "I live across the street, and I guess I feel like I owe these guys my prayers," he said. "I love this city, but I don't feel it's very healed. So many people just got wiped out on a perfect day just like this."

The Pentagon

Zenovia Cuyler was starting her morning at a Pentagon health clinic on Sept. 11, 2001, when she heard that an airplane had ripped through the building's limestone exterior. When she learned where the plane had crashed, she immediately feared the worst.

"I watched the building burn for a while, and then I knew my mother was gone," Cuyler said yesterday, her eyes softening. "In a way, she's still here."

Surrounded by family members, Cuyler returned to the spot yesterday where her mother, Ada M. Davis, 57, was working as an accountant for the Army five years ago when Flight 77 rammed through the Pentagon's E-ring at 9:37 a.m. For Cuyler, of Upper Marlboro, the wars and the U.S. troops dying overseas are a continual reminder of that personal horror.

"I haven't healed because I live it every day," she said. "There is no closure."

Beneath ominously dark clouds and a sporadic spitting rain outside the Pentagon yesterday, Cuyler and more than 500 family members and friends of the 184 victims joined in solemn remembrance. They waved small American flags and saluted the same enormous Stars and Stripes that draped the Pentagon in the days after the attack.

Songs such as "Battle Hymn of the Republic" streamed through the morning mist, while America's top military leaders spoke of the great sacrifices members of the military made on Sept. 11, as well as the sacrifices they are now making. Cheney, Pace and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the attacks marked the surprise beginning of a now-global struggle.

The moment appeared to affect Rumsfeld, who struggled briefly through his opening words before speaking about the need to aggressively go after the terrorists who celebrated while America mourned the victims five years ago.

"The highest tribute we can pay to them is to commit ourselves to doing everything possible to fight the extremists wherever they are, to making every effort to stay united as a country, and to give our truly outstanding men and women in uniform all that they need to succeed," Rumsfeld said, a sling holding his left arm in place after surgery last week.

In a brief afternoon visit, Bush and the first lady placed a wreath at the spot where the plane hit the Pentagon, standing for a moment of silence before a five-piece band played a soft version of "America the Beautiful." Several senior senators and White House officials joined about 225 family members representing 56 victims. Bush then spent about 15 minutes shaking hands and sharing hugs, at one point wiping tears from his eyes.

Joyce Johnson's eyes began to water as she talked about her husband, Army Lt. Col. Dennis M. Johnson, who five years ago died just a few feet from where she was standing.

Walking away from the afternoon ceremony, five years of memories flooding back to her, Johnson praised Bush for his dedication to the victims: "Just for him to take the time to go to all three places means more than anything."

Shanksville

Just a few miles down the road from a field shrouded with memories and mementos, Oleg Kis stood in his hotel trying to decide whether to wear the suit jacket and tie or the black T-shirt folded on his bed.

"This may be too provocative," said the soft-spoken Kis, 49, holding the T-shirt out in front of him, the words "Face the Facts" emblazoned on the front. In one corner of the room, boxes brimmed with thousands of fliers. In another reclined a placard splashed with the words "Stop 9-11 Cover-Up."

"I believe the truth should be spread," Kis said of his one-man protest at the crash site.

People came for many reasons, some alone and some by the busload, to a field even locals considered the middle of nowhere until a plane punctured the earth five years ago. Danielle Anderson, 18, and Angela McMillen, 21, drove hundreds of miles through the night from Dubois, Pa., to in hopes of creating a memory for themselves.

"My grandmother talked to me about WWII, and my parents talked to me about Vietnam," McMillen said. "This is what we're going to tell our children."

They came on a whim, leaving at 2 a.m. and arriving before the sun rose. About 1,000 people would follow, gathering under a slate-gray sky at 9 a.m. for the memorial service. There were prayers and victims' names read and politicians searching for words of comfort.

Afterward, Bush visited the crash site with families, taking a moment to talk to each. A chapel also held a service, with people spread among fold-out chairs. Alice Hoagland, mother of victim Mark Bingham, attended both ceremonies.

"This is really comforting to be here today, to look into the eyes of the other Flight 93 families and to grieve together and to find comfort together," Hoagland said.

If there was a lesson her son and others on Flight 93 learned that day, it was that there is power in numbers, she said.

Shanksville, a small town of about 250 people, often appears overwhelmed by the attention. This is a place where deer, raccoons and bears still wander up to back porches and where scrapple, a mix of cornmeal and pig fat, is a dietary staple. The plane crash ripped a hole in that solitude.

"I stomped these grounds when I was a kid," said Fred Bruening, 76, adding that he shot his first 10-point buck where the plane came down. "Just think of a boy who might have seen two cars all day long going down that road to Shanksville. I never would have never thought there'd be all these people standing here."

He and his wife had driven from Youngtown, N.Y., for the ceremony yesterday, as they have every year since the crash.

"This is our special place," said Diane Bruening, 62.

Up the hill, near the makeshift memorial that has grown each year, Kis stood in a gray suit and blue tie, handing out fliers and calling to passersby.

"Find out what really happened," he shouted.

"You're a moron," one man yelled back.

"What you're trying to accomplish has nothing to do with what is going on here," shouted Jim Kunkel, 38, of Pittsburgh. "Go away."

"I don't want them to have died uselessly," Kis yelled back.

Powell reported from New York; Vargas reported from Shanksville, Pa.; and White reported from Washington. Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and Michelle GarcĂ­a in New York contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company