Next time you’re in the Washington, D.C. area, make the time to visit the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, which honors the 184 people killed at the Pentagon by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda on 9/11. I had the opportunity to speak with a Catholic man who lost his wife in the Pentagon attack, and who played a significant role in building the memorial to honor his wife and the other victims’ memories.
On the morning of 9/11, five hijackers boarded American Airlines Flight 77 at Washington Dulles International Airport. The plane was bound for Los Angeles, but hijacked en route, turned around and flown into the Pentagon, crashing at 9:37 a.m. On the plane and at the Pentagon 184 died as victims; the youngest was age 3 and the oldest 71. The 3-year-old, Dana Falkenberg, was one of a family of four onboard the plane that day, wiped out by the terrorist attack.
Seven years later the memorial was opened, with 184 benches — one to honor each of the victims. The benches are arranged by order of the age of the victims; each one has a name of an individual victim engraved on it. A pool of water is under each. The benches either face toward or away from the Pentagon, depending upon whether the victim was on the plane or inside the Pentagon (if you look at the name of the victim and have the Pentagon in the background, he died inside the Pentagon, if you look away from the Pentagon, he was aboard the plane).
There are 85 Crape Myrtle trees planted alongside the benches, which one day will grow to 30 feet and provide ample shade for the memorial. At night, the benches are illuminated.
Visitors are welcome to come and see the memorial, which is easily accessible by car or the Metro train.
I was first introduced to the memorial by Thomas Heidenberger, a retired pilot whose wife, Michele, was a flight attendant onboard American Airlines Flight 77. (Tom worked for another airline and was home the morning of the attacks.) He described Michele as a committed Catholic and mother, who volunteered to help with Washington D.C.’s St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home (administered by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul). Tom recalled, “Michele was a wonderful partner, my best friend, a great mom and someone who gave back so much to others.”
The couple had celebrated their 20-year-old daughter’s birthday the evening before on the Baltimore waterfront, and had the last photo of the family, including their 15-year-old son, snapped that evening. Tom said of the photograph, “We were sitting there, eating dinner, and Michele had a radiant look about her.”
Confusion gave way to devastation the morning of 9/11, as Tom and his family realized it was Michele’s flight that had been hijacked and that she was among the victims. Tom has the bitter memory of his 15-year-old son, upon learning of his mother’s death, laying down on the floor with the family’s yellow Labrador dog (a birthday present from Michele to Tom), crying inconsolably. He said, “It’s the worst thing in the world to tell a child his mother has been killed. It was horrific.”
It was difficult, but Tom and his children moved on. His children—although not without their struggles—went back to school. Tom went back to flying three weeks later, he noted, “Because otherwise the terrorists would have won. Flying is what I did; I had to get back to my routine.”
Tom took an active role in the creation of the Pentagon memorial, even riding his bike from Los Angeles, through New York to the Pentagon, a total of 4,300 miles, to raise $300,000 for construction of the memorial.
One debate was where to put the memorial; as the Pentagon is a military facility, military officials were reluctant for security reasons to have a public memorial alongside it. Ten sites were considered, but, Tom said, “the families wanted it at the crash site.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was a “big advocate” for the Pentagon site, Tom continued, “and with some lobbying and arm-twisting we got everyone to agree.”
There was then a competition for memorial design, along with monthly planning meetings, of which Tom was a participant. Keeping busy with the memorial was part of the healing process, Tom said, as “it got me through some of the darkest hours. Something good came out of all this.”
Tom’s Catholic faith was an important aid as well. Every July 17—Michele’s birthday—and Sept. 11 Tom has Mass celebrated for her. Tom said, “Just believing and knowing that there is a path forward doesn’t come from anyone but God. I knew I couldn’t do it all by myself.”