From afar, the once-crumpled beige southern wall of the Pentagon looks more solid than ever. Highways form a moat around it, security is stringent and for most passersby the building seems impenetrable.
But members of the public were allowed to breach the fortress yesterday. The America's Heroes Memorial, a tribute area available only to Pentagon employees and victims' families since it opened in 2002, was unveiled to outsiders eager for a close-up view of the site where 184 people were killed when five hijackers crashed an American Airlines jetliner into the building Sept. 11, 2001.
Led by an honor guard, visitors stood reverently before large black plaques inscribed with the victims' names, took off their baseball caps in a small chapel decorated with stained-glass eagles, and viewed a large sepia-colored painting of the Pentagon with small portraits of each victim floating above.
Stopping at the visitors book, Ellie Lewis of Manassas sniffled, dabbed at her eyes and signed her name. She didn't know anyone killed in the attack, but being where it had happened affected her. "I just didn't expect to get so emotional," she said. "I don't think you have to have someone who died to see how hard it was."
On the one day that the memorial was open to the public, almost 2,000 people filed through in guided groups of 10 to 20. (Administrators have not decided whether the tours will become an annual event.) Some people complained that there was no time to linger before the next group arrived.
Afterward, in a tent with videos and brochures on the attack, visitors chatted with one another and with relatives of the victims.
For Sheilla Coyne, 21, an Army private from Alexandria who was there with her fiance and infant son, what hit her was seeing the large black stone at the base of the Pentagon wall, the only interruption in the smooth facade. It had been charred but remained intact, and it later was engraved with the date of the attack and reincorporated into the wall. Behind it lies a capsule containing objects such as sympathy cards from schoolchildren, a signed photograph of President Bush and Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and a patch that says "Let's Roll" -- a reference to what a passenger on another hijacked plane is said to have cried before he and others stormed the cockpit.
Coyne's brother, Army Sgt. Daniel Coyne of Alexandria, 23, pronounced the painting of the Pentagon "gorgeous" and said he was glad to see a reminder of the attack. "It's kind of like with our POWs or our MIAs -- letting them know that we realize that the tragedy's still alive and everyone remembers what happened that day."
Basmattie Bishundat of Waldorf wore a T-shirt adorned with a picture of her son Romeo, a 23-year-old naval officer who was killed in the attack. She said she was comforted, a little, by the stream of people visiting the site and stopping to talk.
"Just a little word, just a hug, just a word from strangers to say, 'I'm sorry' -- that means more than you'll ever know," she said. "I'm still in shock. I still can't believe it. There are days when it isn't real."
Outside, visitors passed by the two-acre site that will become the Pentagon Memorial, a tree-dotted area with 184 stainless steel benches rising over reflecting pools, forming parallel lines in the direction of the flight path. The $18 million project, designed by Keith Kaseman and Julie Beckman of Kaseman Beckman Amsterdam Studio in New York City, is being funded by individual and corporate donations. About $8 million has been raised, and construction is expected to begin next year.
Like the indoor one, the outdoor memorial was designed with input from victims' families. Kaseman, who stood with Beckman beside a model of the design, said it was meant to be open-ended. "It makes you think, but it doesn't tell you how to think or how to feel," he said.
Many visitors had connections to the military or to victims. Kathy Harris, 49, of Fairfax lost a close friend in the attack and has been closely following the memorial projects. Her daughter, Jessica, was 3 when it happened but has grown up hearing about 9/11.
"She knows I lost a good friend," said a teary Harris; Jessica, now 7, threw her arms around her mother.
Even those who live far away seemed moved. The McClure family of Tampa happened to be in town this weekend. After touring the site, Patty McClure, 42, stood with her husband and daughters under the tent, unable to stop crying.
"I think as Americans you feel like you knew everybody," she said, tears streaming down her face. "Just like in Katrina -- you feel like, 'That's us.' "