Memories, Grief Endure Across Region
Services Recall Losses, Pay Tribute to Victims

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

In the past five years, Ron Miluszewski has been unable to shake the smell of the first victims who were brought to his hospital from the shattered Pentagon: They reeked of jet fuel.

In the past five years, Mazie Lawson's anguish at the loss of her daughter, Cecelia Richard, on Sept. 11, has lingered, undiminished.

In the past five years, Colin Wolfe grew from childhood in Manassas to the Marine Corps in Iraq, determined to battle the perpetrators of Sept. 11. Yesterday -- at the age of 19 -- he was borne to his grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

So much can happen in five years, while much stays unchanged.

Five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, residents and visitors across the Washington region paused yesterday, away from the grand commemorations, to remember the milestone and take stock of all that has and has not changed in the half-decade since 2001.

At the Lincoln Memorial, prayers for nonviolence echoed across the Reflecting Pool and mingled with the roar of airliners soaring through the overcast that shrouded the city and its psyche.

At a downtown Washington cathedral, a churchgoer attended Mass carrying a framed photograph of a Roman Catholic priest who died in the World Trade Center.

And at a Montgomery County interfaith building project, a 74-year-old Rockville man lamented that he had not done more to improve ethnic relations in the past five years.

* * *

"I'm looking for ways to knock down barriers," John Harris of Rockville said yesterday as he stood in the drizzling rain wearing a tool belt and jacket. "Get to know people as individuals, not categorize them by groups."

Harris and 14 other volunteers had assembled in Burtonsville to build townhouses as part of what Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County had dubbed "Interfaith Build," aimed at bringing together Christian, Jewish and Muslim volunteers. Habitat planned a group lunch and breaks for prayers. But the Muslim contingent never showed. (A representative of the Muslim group later said that he didn't have directions and that by the time he and volunteers reached each other on the phone yesterday, the build had been called off because of rain.)

At the site, the early end to the project gave Harris time to reflect. A Missouri native, onetime CIA worker and lifelong liberal-leaning Baptist, he is nothing if not honest with himself.

Five years ago, immediately after Sept. 11, he hoped the nation's unity would have him getting to know more Muslims. That hasn't happened. He blames himself, in part, saying he instinctively falls back to being with those he knows best, Christians. But he also thinks the war in Iraq has hurt unity.

"We have broadened who the enemy is," he said.

* * *

At the Lincoln Memorial, Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, India's famed philosopher statesman, led speakers and bystanders in calling for peaceful approaches to counterterrorism.

"I see a lot more fear in the minds of people," said Gandhi, who lives in Rochester, N.Y., and, with his wife, Sunanda, founded the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. "It's reached a point where somebody shouts, 'boo,' and everybody runs."

As he spoke, Gary Smith, 60, who served in Vietnam with a Marine Corps artillery unit, was walking by with his wife, Margaret, 60, and their granddaughter, Shelby, 13, who was wearing a pink sweatshirt that said "FBI."

Smith, of Adrian, Mo., said he has changed in the past five years. But he is not afraid. "I'm an American, and I'm going to do what I want to do," he said. "I'm free, and I'm going to stay that way. They're not going to scare me. They may make me nervous. But they're not going to scare me."

* * *

Across the Potomac River, the body of Colin Wolfe was being carried through Arlington National Cemetery. Wolfe was a 14-year-old, preoccupied with girls and baseball and successfully sidestepping homework assignments, when the terrorists stuck.

It was in that moment, when the twin towers fell and the Pentagon was on fire, that the Manassas youth decided his future would take a very specific path: service in the Marine Corps.

Wolfe deployed to Iraq in July. He was killed last month, cut down when his Humvee struck a roadside bomb.

Yesterday, the Marine lance corporal was buried on a day his parents said they selected for its raw symbolism.

"September 11 was an integral part of his decision process to become a Marine, and it seems absolutely appropriate," said Wolfe's father, Mark Wolfe.

* * *

In Bladensburg yesterday morning, a bell chimed 25 times in honor of the 25 Prince George's County residents who lost their lives that day five years ago.

Mazie Lawson, 77, shed tears as the bell tolled for her daughter, Cecelia Richard, 41.

The ceremony was held to dedicate the Prince George's County Sept. 11 Memorial at the Bladensburg Waterfront Park at Peace Cross. Twenty-five white crepe myrtle trees, one for each victim, lined a brick walkway and a granite memorial with an inscription that reads: "We will always remember them."

Lawson, of Capitol Heights, tried to hold back tears as she talked about her daughter. "It's a terrible feeling," she said. "It's a hole that can't be filled."

"I just hate the word 'closure,' " Lawson said. "There's never closure. To me, the word closure means to close and forget, and I never want to forget my daughter's spirit."

* * *

In Vienna, about 50 people gathered on the lawn of the Freeman House for the town's annual Sept. 11 commemoration, organized by American Legion Post 180. Some took shelter from the drizzle beneath a maple tree; others sat in folding chairs.

Ron Miluszewski, director of admissions at Virginia Hospital Center, was the featured speaker. The hospital treated 44 victims of the Pentagon attack, and his memories of that day at the hospital's triage center are a mix of horror and heroism: The sound of the ambulance sirens bringing the day's first victims. The two injured servicemen who, after receiving treatment, tore off their hospital tags and returned to the crash site at the Pentagon to look for others. The smell of jet fuel on the burn patients.

"It's a memory that has stayed in my head," he said later. "All I could smell was jet fuel, like being in an airport. I'll never forget that. I've tried to. But every time I go to an airport, the smell of jet fuel reminds me. It was so strong."

* * *

A group of Arab Americans gathered at the Capital Hilton hotel downtown to mark the anniversary. One of those in attendance, Samiah Bahhur, 45, was upset.

"Don't use the word 'angry,' okay?" she said.

An energy regulation specialist, Bahhur said she feels "punished" when she finds airport security slips in her luggage or when she thinks about the Patriot Act -- which she feels unfairly puts Arab Americans such as herself under a microscope and makes other Americans feel suspicious.

"We are just like every other American," she said, her right hand gesturing firmly. Bahhur, of Fairfax, was among 150 people in business suits, military uniforms and modest hijabs who came to listen to religious figures -- Muslim, Christian and Jewish -- reflect on the past five years. Speakers talked about the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab vitriol that came after Sept. 11, as well as the interfaith bonding.

Bahhur said she wanted to be optimistic. She volunteers with the Red Cross and the Arab American Institute and tries "not to let the things that affect the community affect me." She said she remembers feeling optimistic in the months after the attacks after seeing people work for more tolerance, more education. But then came the wiretapping and other terrorist incidents, each one a reason for some to let loose a little hate.

* * *

Last night, thousands of football fans waved small American flags, chanted "USA! USA!" and observed a moment of silence before the start of the Redskins-Vikings game at FedEx Field.

But in a utility tunnel beneath the stadium, Prince George's firefighter Ernie Alsop stood by, sitting in a firetruck, in case of calamity.

Alsop, 46, is in his 25th year as a firefighter, but this is his first season working security at Redskins games.

He worries about car fires and sick fans and, now, mysterious backpacks stashed in the woods.

"You can't let that stuff go these days," he said. "You've got to check everything out. I'm a rookie when it comes to this, but I know that day has changed the world."

* * *

During Mass in the cathedral in Washington, John Mohan sat with a black-framed, smiling photograph of his friend, Franciscan priest Mychal Judge. The 68-year-old Roman Catholic chaplain for New York's fire department was killed at the World Trade Center as he ministered to the dead and dying.

"There's a sadness of course . . . but I do think there is a determination too, to remember those who died and maybe take what was good from their lives," said Mohan, 41.

The District resident was among about 200 worshipers at the Mass celebrated by Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Northwest Washington.

In his homily, Wuerl sought to dispel the paralysis that people can feel in the face of horrible events. "Our capacity to change the world is not as limited as we think," he said.

After the Mass, Mohan stood in line to speak with Wuerl. He asked the archbishop to bless the photograph.

Later, standing on the steps of the red brick cathedral, Mohan called Sept. 11 "one of the landmarks that you look at and say, 'Where were you on the day?' And everybody knows where they were before and after, and how their lives changed."

The experience, he added, had marked his generation, "maybe in some ways that people in this generation living now are not even aware of yet and won't be for many years to come."

Staff writers Joshua Partlow, Leef Smith, Dan Morse, Philip Rucker, Michelle Boorstein, Caryle Murphy and Nick Miroff contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company