Almost four years ago, Craig Sincock watched from a parking lot as flames swept the west side of the Pentagon, where his wife, Cheryle, worked. A secretary, she was one of the scores of Defense Department workers to die on Sept. 11, 2001.
In the months after the attack, Craig served as an unofficial spokesman for the Sept. 11 Pentagon families and counseled many of them on avoiding the emotional pitfalls that can follow unfathomable tragedy. But now the ex-Army warrant officer has watched his own family collapse under the weight of the attack and its aftermath.
Accompanied by a phalanx of lawyers and spinning through courtrooms in Manassas and Alexandria, a two-year dispute over Sept. 11 money between Craig and his three stepdaughters has engulfed several families, thousands of pages of court documents and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
For the 60-year-old grandfather, it is the ultimate irony. After counseling grief-stricken families on how to keep their families in one piece, Craig and the daughters whom he and Cheryle, who died at age 53, raised together are estranged.
"They can live their own lives," said Craig, his voice cracking, as he hunched over a cup of coffee in his Fredericksburg home only a few miles from where his stepdaughters live. "But they're going to have to live it without me."
His stepdaughters point to their stepfather as the source of the problems.
"If you claim to love your children, even if they're not your own, you don't put them through this agony," said Cheryle's eldest daughter, Debbie Templin, 39.
The dispute reveals the hidden legacy of Sept. 11, say those who have worked with victims' families. The billions of dollars aimed at aiding those who lost loved ones so terribly and so publicly can expose the fault lines of the strongest families. Even survivors, like Craig, who know all the rules for navigating the aftermath of tragedy can flounder.
"It's about power and memory, and it's about entitlement," said Paula Madrid, director of the Resiliency Program at Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, who has counseled many Sept. 11 families. " 'Who was I to the person who passed away? What am I entitled to because of how much I loved this person versus what you did for him or her?' "
Last month, the executor of Cheryle's estate settled the distribution of survivors' benefits -- over her husband's objections -- with her daughters. But the fighting isn't over. Other issues remain, says everyone involved.
For Craig, tall and lean with a gruff laugh and weathered face, the dispute has only added to the emotional trauma that has plagued him since his wife's death. An Army warrant officer at the time of the attack who worked near his wife's Pentagon office, he was attending a meeting in Rosslyn that day and sprinted back to the Pentagon after seeing a plume of smoke rise from the complex.
He spent most of the next two days at the site, watching the smoke and flames and praying for his wife. Her body was discovered shortly thereafter.
It was a tragically abrupt end to a 24-year marriage.
A New Life Begins
The two had met in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 1975, where Cheryle was raising three daughters. A lively blonde with a peppery sense of humor, Cheryle was attempting to right herself after a turbulent, and tragic, past. By age 25, she had had four children by four men, and she worked a series of low-wage jobs to support them.
Then, in 1974, her 6-year-old-son, Chad, was beaten to death. Her husband at the time -- a truck driver named Frank Miller -- was convicted of manslaughter in the slaying of the kindergartner. Miller was sentenced to 30 years in prison, according to court records and news accounts in Sioux Falls, and Cheryle quickly divorced him.
Craig came into Cheryle's life the year Miller went to prison. The taciturn Army National Guardsman was immediately drawn to the warmhearted mom. "We were Mutt and Jeff," Craig recalled with a chuckle.
They were married Oct. 29, 1976, and Cheryle's daughters -- then 9, 4 and 2 -- accepted Craig as their father.
"He raised us," said Michelle Cropp, 32. "He was Dad."
The family moved to Woodbridge in 1985 when Craig went to work at the Pentagon. Cheryle also went to work for the Department of Defense in 1987.
For Cheryle and Craig, family was everything. Their home became the center of frequent family gatherings. And when Cheryle's eldest daughter, Debbie, and middle daughter, Stacy, 34, married and had children, Cheryle and Craig became adoring grandparents.
Cheryle outfitted her daughters with full nurseries and showered her grandchildren with presents. She also helped others, embroidering baby blankets for pregnant co-workers and welcoming acquaintances into her home for holidays.
"Her whole life was about giving and living every day to the best of your ability," said Debbie, who has three children. "She was just a wonderful, wonderful person."
But Craig said that, beneath the happy exterior, Cheryle never stopped grieving for her son. She rarely talked about him, although she visited Chad's grave in Sioux Falls -- alone -- when they traveled there.
As a result of the tragedy, Craig said, his wife became extraordinarily close to her three surviving children, drawing a virtually impenetrable circle around herself and her daughters.
"She held on to those three girls so doggone tight," Craig recalled. But given the anguish she had gone through, he said it was understandable.
When Sept. 11 swept away the family matriarch, the family banded together -- for a while.
The daughters pitched in to help Craig -- cooking and cleaning at the Woodbridge home as their mother had. Stacy joined Craig for daily lunches at the Family Assistance Center in Crystal City, where Craig was counseling other grieving families. Michelle said she changed jobs so that she could be closer to the home that she still shared with Craig.
Craig threw himself into his work with the other Sept. 11 Pentagon families, launching Pentagon Angels, a Web site for them. He appeared frequently on CNN and other news programs and was quoted frequently in news accounts.
But subtle fissures in the family began to widen.
The daughters say that Craig spent so much time counseling other families that he had little time and energy for his family's pain. "It was easier for him to handle other families' grief than it was to handle ours," Debbie said. "Because ours was closer to home."
"We were a constant reminder of Mom," Michelle added.
Craig, however, said he was engulfed in grief and shock.
He began having nightmares and flashbacks to the horror of the Pentagon that day. Walking past plate glass windows became impossible; he would imagine a plane crashing through. He went days without eating or sleeping.
Craig also discovered a family secret, he said. After his wife died, he unearthed a stack of unpaid bills totaling thousands of dollars for items that Cheryle had purchased for her daughters.
"All of our money," he said he realized, "went to the kids."
The daughters emphatically deny that their mother overspent on them. They said that their mother did occasionally help them out financially but that they always paid her back. Most of her generosity, they say, was directed toward her grandchildren.
"She took care of the kids," said Debbie, a Fredericksburg homemaker. "This is what a grandparent does."
In early 2002, through his work with Pentagon Angels, Craig met Patricia Fallon, a vivacious Navy widow who had lost her 23-year-old daughter, Jamie, a Navy shopkeeper, at the Pentagon. At 59, she was raising Jamie's son, Kahleb, who was 7 months old when Jamie was killed.
For the grieving widower and mourning grandmother, the attraction was instant. Craig said the relationship brought some joy into his life and also convinced him that he needed treatment and therapy.
Six months after Cheryle's death, Craig told his stepdaughters that he was moving into his girlfriend's Woodbridge home.
The daughters said that they liked Fallon but that the abrupt announcement was deeply distressing, as was Craig's decision to sell the Woodbridge home that he and Cheryle had shared.
Battles in Court
Other disputes erupted. Craig and Debbie ended up in court over payment for renovations he made to her home after a fire. Another dispute over the sale of Fallon's car to Stacy also landed in court.
Craig said he gave the daughters $20,000 each after he sold the home and all the household's goods. But, he said, that wasn't enough.
"They wanted more and more and more," he said. "They expected me to do exactly what their mother had done -- protect them and give, give, give."
The daughters say they did not ask for more money from the sale of the house.
For both sides -- at least initially -- the Victim Compensation Fund presented a way to mend the rift by easing the money tensions.
Created shortly after Sept. 11, the fund offered compensation to the injured and the families of the dead in return for their waiving the right to sue U.S. airlines and other domestic organizations.
Craig applied for the fund in 2003, after he and the daughters signed a proposed agreement to share the proceeds. Their agreement, subject to the approval of the Victim Compensation Fund, would give the daughters and their children $300,000 of the eventual award -- $250,000 to split among the daughters and $50,000 to set up college funds for the children. The rest would go to Craig.
He said his stepdaughters pressured him to sign the agreement after a lawyer falsely told them that Craig could not file a claim with the Victim Compensation Fund without it.
But his stepdaughters say that Craig signed it willingly and promised them it would help heal the family.
" 'We're going to get this signed and out of the way, and then we're going to work on our relationship,' " Debbie said he told them.
But when the award letter from Victim Compensation Fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg came in May 2004, it awarded $697,597 to Craig and Cheryle's estate, which she had willed to Craig.
Craig said he was initially shocked by the apparent rejection of his agreement with his stepdaughters. The executor of Cheryle's estate, attorney Richard Weidner, even asked the Prince William County commissioner of accounts to look into the matter.
But in October, another letter from Feinberg arrived. It said that the agreement between Craig and his stepdaughters had not reached Feinberg before he made his initial ruling. It then awarded the daughters and their children the $300,000.
But that wasn't the end of the issue. The following month, Feinberg rescinded that award, saying that he had concluded there had been no valid agreement between Craig and his stepdaughters. Again he awarded the $697,597 to Craig and Cheryle's estate.
In an interview, Feinberg declined to comment on the contradictory award letters.
During that time, Craig had been receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and had left the military with a medical disability. He backed out of the agreement with his stepdaughters, saying he had agreed to it under duress.
It was the final blow to the family's tenuous peace.
"For him to say, 'Well, you don't deserve it,' " Debbie said.
"It ripped everything open again," Stacy said.
The daughters filed suit in Prince William Circuit Court in February against Craig, Weidner and Weidner's attorney, Patrick Blasz, asking for $1 million and alleging fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.
For months, the two sides punched back and forth at each other in court filings and hearings. Craig's side sued the Prince William County commissioner of accounts, Linda Lonas, and Circuit Court Judge Richard B. Potter.
Weidner, the executor of Cheryle's estate, sued the daughters as well as Craig and Potter. Blasz sued Feinberg and U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in federal court.
A Call for Healing
Finally, in late June, the matter ended up before U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, who made it clear that she wanted things settled and that she believed the original agreement between Craig and his stepdaughters was valid.
"This is the kind of case where the law shouldn't be involved," Brinkema said at the hearing in her Alexandria courtroom.
"I don't know who's at fault," she added. "All I know is it's a family that ought to heal, and it hasn't."
Shortly after the hearing, executor Weidner settled the dispute on behalf of Cheryle's estate for the original amount the daughters had agreed to with Craig -- $300,000 -- plus $20,000 in attorney fees for the daughters, according to other attorneys involved in the case. Weidner did not return calls seeking comment.
The funds have been paid to the daughters.
But the war isn't over. The daughters' original lawsuit against their stepfather in federal court has been sent to Prince William Circuit Court. The legal dispute over the home renovation is unresolved.
Craig is bitter at the outcome. He said he has gone through five attorneys and more than $200,000 in attorneys' fees and court costs.
"Every cent that I got or should have gotten from the federal compensation fund has been spent on attorneys or on supporting the girls," he said over his coffee.
Craig said he is trying to move on with his life.
He and Fallon plan to marry this weekend, and he is running a busy contracting business. Together, they are raising Kahleb, a sturdy, plump-cheeked boy who calls Craig "Pop-Pop" in the Fredericksburg home that they purchased this year.
In Debbie's living room, Cheryle's middle daughter -- Stacy Foubare -- looked at her sisters as they blinked back tears.
"Basically, nobody won," Stacy said. "There were no winners. We all lost."
She added: "I'd give every dollar back to have her back."