Remembering the Day the Pentagon Was Attacked

A new memorial park honors the memory of the 184 people who died there on 9/11.

A bench in memory of 9/11 Pentagon victim Janice Scott, a U.S. Army civilian employee.

A bench in memory of 9/11 Pentagon victim Janice Scott, a U.S. Army civilian employee.

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Even now, seven years on, most Americans can recall where they were when they first heard about the 9/11 attacks. But few carry the details of that horrible moment as clearly as the families of those lost in the terrorist maelstrom.

For Joyce Johnson, it was at her daughter's high school in Burke, Va. Johnson was a volunteer in the career center, where a TV came on, repeatedly showing a plane flying into the World Trade Center. Then, the Pentagon flashed on the screen. Black smoke was spewing out. Her husband worked there. Right there. In that part of the building. The part on fire.

Johnson found her 16-year-old daughter, Cassandra. They hugged. She went home. Cassandra stayed, to be with other friends whose parents worked at the Pentagon. At home, there were messages on the voice mail. But none from Joyce's husband, Dennis. After she had spent an agonizing day, her husband's carpool partner arrived at the house and came to the door. "Is Dennis here?" he asked.

"No," she answered. Tears welled in the man's eyes. She knew.

On Sept. 11, 2008, America's first national 9/11 memorial will open on the southwestern lawn of the Pentagon, along the same path that American Airlines Flight 77 flew in its final second before slamming into the Pentagon at 530 miles per hour. Atop a bed of crushed stone, there's a sleek bench, resembling a futuristic airplane wing, that honors Army Lt. Col. Dennis M. Johnson. Water softly bubbles into a reflecting pool beneath. Surrounding Johnson's bench are 183 others, representing 59 passengers and crew members aboard Flight 77, and 124 others who were working in the Pentagon.

The benches are perfectly aligned with each other, yet clustered by age, the military precision disrupted by the randomness that now binds the victims together. Scattered maples, saplings now, will one day shade the park—but not so deeply that they'll block the Pentagon's security cameras. And unlike the imposing Pentagon itself, the memorial is so subtle that from the tangle of highways that pass nearby, it's easy to miss.

But when it fills with people on September 11, the Pentagon memorial will be the first formal gathering place for those who lost friends and family on 9/11. In lower Manhattan, where 2,751 died, ground zero is a huge, overbudget construction zone; the memorial there won't even be finished by the 10th anniversary of the attacks. A memorial planned for Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 crashed, killing 40, has been marred by design disputes. The Pentagon memorial, by contrast, will open on schedule, attended by virtually no controversy.

For the family members, however, there has been plenty of turmoil. And anybody who sits on Dennis Johnson's bench, finding serenity in the gentle burble of water from beneath, would be fooled. Because Johnson and other Pentagon victims left behind mysteries that some of their family members still struggle to understand.

There was an outpouring of sympathy for the victims and their families in the fall of 2001, and Joyce Johnson got her share. The Johnsons and their two daughters, Cassie and Dawn, 20, had been in a new home for just six weeks, yet neighbors lined the street with candles in Dennis's honor. People Joyce barely knew told her they had been able to see the love between her and her husband, even in a short window of time.

Need to know. After her husband had been recovered and buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Joyce joined a support group along with other 9/11 spouses. Most wanted to believe that their loved one had died instantly and painlessly when Flight 77 tore through the Pentagon. There certainly was good reason to believe that: The force of the crash was so powerful that it obliterated 400,000 square feet of office space. But information began to trickle out revealing that some of the victims had survived the initial impact, only to die in the fiery smoke 10 or 20 minutes later. That raised troubling questions. Could those people have been saved? Did some of them try to go into the inferno to rescue others? Were there unacknowledged heroes among the victims?