By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008
Surely no one who had seen the Pentagon burning seven years ago could have envisioned the scene that unfolded there yesterday.
When the dedication ceremony for the Pentagon Memorial ended about 10:30 a.m. and the dignitaries had left in their motorcades, the families of Sept. 11 victims began filing into the park, searching for the steel-and-granite memorial benches with the names of their loved ones. They carried flowers, balloons and photographs, and soon a festive, almost celebratory mood began to take hold among a group long accustomed to spending the day in sadness.
It was the children who set the tone, really, treating the austere objects like playground equipment rather than representations of the dead. They ran among the rows of benches, playing with the water in the pools below and sliding down their smooth, arcing outlines, a stone's throw from the spot where American Airlines Flight 77 tore into the western side of the Pentagon seven years ago, killing 184.
Dean Taylor wasn't going to stop his children. He stood by as his adopted sons Dean, 8, and Luke, 6, climbed on the granite surface of their dead father's bench, digging in the nearby gravel with their hands and dipping them in the water coursing beneath it. They had already met the president and sat patiently through the 2 1/2 -hour dedication ceremony.
Now they were at the bench for Army Lt. Col. Kip Paul Taylor, Dean Taylor's younger brother, a man the boys were too young to remember. His death was the first of two hard truths they have had to face in their short lives, Taylor explained.
Two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the boys' mother, Nancy Taylor, died of cancer, and Dean Taylor and his wife, Donna, adopted their nephews. The couple did not try to hide the truth about their biological parents from the boys, Taylor said, and the memorial site would help them come to terms with it.
"This will bring another level of closure for them," he said, looking around the site at the other families with children playing nearby. "It helps them close the gap. It's a place they can always come back to, even long after we're gone."
Later, when the public was allowed to enter the park, Luis Acosta led his daughter Grace, 9, and son Alexander, 7, from bench to bench, wall to wall.
"They have a brother in the Middle East," said Acosta, 52, of Millersville, Md. "This is significant. It gives reason as to why he is over there."
The two-acre site is the nation's first major permanent Sept. 11 memorial, its 184 benches honoring each of the victims. Understated in its design, the site aims to tell the story of what happened Sept. 11 in symbolism, not words. Its benches are aligned along the path of Flight 77 and organized along a timeline.
They span from the youngest victim, 3-year-old Dana Falkenberg, to John D. Yamnicky Sr., 71, who was honored during the dedication, having survived two wars and five crashes as a Navy pilot, only to die as a passenger on Flight 77 when it hit the building where he worked.
Many of the families arrived at the Pentagon just after sunrise, in time for an 8 a.m. dedication ceremony held in the parking lot between the Pentagon and Interstate 395. A crowd of almost 20,000 invited guests filled bleachers and chairs that faced the memorial and a large stage with huge video monitors. In the background, a single three-story flag hung from the roof of the Pentagon as it did during the weeks and months after Sept. 11.
Snipers patrolled a catwalk there, and security was heavy because of the guest list: President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and several Supreme Court justices were in attendance, along with other military and civilian dignitaries.
Separate commemorations were held in New York and Pennsylvania, and 2,998 U.S. flags were placed outside the dedication ceremony at the Pentagon, one for each of the day's victims. All 184 of the Pentagon victims' names were read at the dedication, interrupted only by a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m. to mark the moment when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
"On the morning of September 11th, 2001, the unthinkable arrived on this spot. With this memorial we pay our respects to 184 souls; to the many who were injured; and to the families who still grieve," Gates said. "While no public display can make up for the injustice, or lessen the pain of these losses, the memorial we dedicate today binds all of America to the dead and their survivors. Your suffering and your solace, so personal to you, become the nation's as well."
As families gathered after the ceremony, Julie Beckman, who designed the memorial and oversaw its construction with her husband, Keith Kaseman, took in a scene she had been trying to picture for years. The couple had wondered how people would interact with the winglike, 14-foot, 1,100-pound objects, not sure if they would be physically embraced. Seeing the families sitting on them and the children playing, she was beaming.
"It's beautiful," she said.
Nearby, a family kneeled at the place where their loved one's name was engraved into the end of the steel bench, making a paper rubbing of the letters. All around, Beckman said, she was seeing "little acts of discovery, exploration and intimate moments."
"It's a place where old memories, and new memories, will happen," Beckman said.
Just a few rows away, a family in identical purple T-shirts with a large silkscreen picture of Amelia Fields milled around her bench, decorating it with flowers and balloons.
Sept. 11, 2001, was Fields's 46th birthday, said her husband, William Fields, a Montclair resident. It was her second day at work at the Pentagon. "She would have been 53 today," he said. "Purple was her color -- she loved purple. And chocolate cake. . . . She was a wonderful wife and mother."
Fields, who recently retired from the Marine Corps, said he plans to go often to the memorial, which will be open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Anytime I'm feeling depressed, this is where I'll come. It doesn't take all the pain away, but every time I come here, I'll be honoring her."
As he listened to the names of the victims and watched their faces appear and fade on the video monitor above the stage, tears streamed down John Yates's cheeks.
"I had 24 friends whose names were read," said Yates, a Fredericksburg resident who was working as a security manager for the Army when the plane hit the building. He sustained second- and third-degree burns over 38 percent of his body but survived and returned to work less than a year later at a location in Crystal City.
Soon he would return to work full time in the Pentagon, said Yates, a tall, powerful man whose mottled hands bear the scars of skin grafts. "I still get chills when I walk those halls," he said of the building.
There were many other ceremonial acts of tribute during the dedication. Eight rescue workers who were among the first responders to the attack stood at somber attention on the Pentagon roof as a bugler played taps. Far below, a bagpiper answered the musical elegy with the wail of "Amazing Grace." As he played, he walked among the rows of benches, each veiled by a blue cloth decorated with a small American flag.
Bush's remarks came near the end of the ceremony.
"For all our citizens, this memorial will be a reminder of the resilience of our spirit," he said during an eight-minute speech. "For future generations, this memorial will be a place of learning. The day will come when most Americans have no memory of Sept. 11. When they visit this memorial, they will learn the 21st century began with a great struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of terror."
Relatives of the victims, who spearheaded the effort to design and build the memorial, said they hope its message would reach the rest of the nation and bring hope to the country's darkest observance.
"This is something to be uplifted about, a place people can find peace and healing," said James Laychak, president of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, whose younger brother David was killed in the Pentagon.
"We've turned a corner on 9/11, and we can say, 'Look what happens when we focus on a common goal and can do something good.' "
Staff writer Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.