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?
Dennis Johnson, it turned out, had been in a conference room in the Army's personnel directorate on the second floor of the five-story structure, along with 10 others, when the plane sliced through the building one floor below them. Nine of the people in the meeting crawled to safety, through dense smoke and smashed furniture. But Johnson and another Army officer, Maj. Stephen Long, got trapped and died. "I kept wondering, why didn't my husband make it out?" Joyce says.
Pentagon officials were interested in similar questions—but for different reasons. A task force of engineers began a detailed analysis of how the crash had affected the building, to help determine ways to make the Pentagon safer and fortify it against other possible attacks. They had much more to work with than forensic experts in New York, where the buildings were gone. Once the bodies had been removed from the Pentagon, and mountains of debris carted out, teams of engineers analyzed every support column, floor slab, beam, and girder in the crash zone. The FBI, responsible for documenting remains, marked the location of every body or body part on a floor plan of the Pentagon. Autopsy results indicated whether each victim died immediately of causes such as "fragmentation" or "blunt force injuries," or succumbed to smoke inhalation some time after the crash.
Though it wasn't the original purpose of the analysis, the forensic evidence began to tell a dramatic tale of death and survival in the frantic minutes following the crash of Flight 77. "Some areas were survivable, but people died," says Georgine Glatz, chief engineer for the Pentagon Renovation Program. "Yet other areas were not survivable, and people lived." Eleven Defense Intelligence Agency employees, for instance, managed to escape from an office shattered by a blast wave, after struggling for nearly 30 minutes in toxic smoke and temperatures approaching 1,000 degrees. The office should have been a death trap, yet they got out. In another area, a Navy officer who was in the direct path of the airplane somehow survived, even though everyone around him died. "He believes, and so does my Task Force, that near miracles actually happened under the very roof of the Pentagon," Glatz wrote in a report analyzing the damage.
But Dennis Johnson and Stephen Long didn't get the benefit of a miracle. As the weeks wore on, Joyce Johnson received conflicting reports about what had happened to her husband. Some told her he died instantly, from the initial fireball. But that didn't make sense, since most of the others in the conference room got out, and she figured they were just trying to tell her what they thought she wanted to hear. When she pressed, others said it might have been falling debris that killed her husband, or smoke inhalation.
Some of the people in the support group urged her to stop asking what happened and just accept that her husband was gone. But she needed to know: The cause of death might help explain why he hadn't escaped. Early in 2002, Joyce decided to ask for her husband's autopsy report. It arrived, marked with warnings that said "do not open" and "graphic material." She put it away for awhile, unopened, then awoke one morning at 5 and decided it was the right day to look at the report. The cause of death was smoke inhalation. And the smoke was deep in Dennis Johnson's stomach. That meant he had lived for maybe 10 or 20 minutes after the impact, crawling in the wreckage, trying to escape. "It was awful to know," she says.
The answer to one question raised others. If her husband had at least 10 minutes to get out, why didn't he? Joyce's persistence led her to Glatz. The engineer explained everything she could figure out based on the evidence she had. The bodies of Dennis Johnson and Stephen Long had been found side by side in the Pentagon's E ring—the outermost of five concentric hallways that circle the building—close to the spot where Flight 77 hit the building. In an office nearby, 13 others, including Army Lt. Gen. Tim Maude, had been killed by the impact of the crash. It appeared that Johnson and Long had left the conference room with the others, only to get separated in the dark and confusion. Instead of turning left toward the interior of the building—and safety—they had turned right and then opened a door that led to the E ring.
The door was less than 100 feet from the conference room. At least one other person had opened the door, seen fireballs blazing down the hallway, then slammed it shut and gone the other way. But Glatz knew from interviews with the DIA survivors that the thick, toxic smoke didn't just reduce visibility to zero; it also dramatically slowed the brain's reaction time. It could easily have taken the two men 15 minutes to get to the door, especially if they had to crawl on the floor and feel around to find it. And once through that door, their fate was sealed: Fire consumed the hallway in both directions.
Joyce began to realize she might never know why her husband turned right, toward the fire, instead of left, toward safety. Some Army colleagues pressed for a valor award for Johnson, Long, and others, believing they were the types of soldiers who would have plunged deeper into danger, to save others. But the only people who knew for sure were dead, and without proof, there could be no award.
Then Joyce learned another detail: Stephen Long had recently undergone arthroscopic knee surgery. That raised another possibility. "I believe he was trying to help a comrade get out of the building," she says. "There's no way to get 100 percent proof, but that's what I have to believe."
Stephen Long's family prefers another explanation. Long's former wife, Tina, says her husband had nearly recovered from surgery by 9/11 and had biked 10 miles just two days before. Long worked in a separate building and had walked without crutches to the meeting. And he was an Army Ranger who had broken his back in a helicopter crash during the invasion of Grenada yet pulled himself from the wreckage and completed the mission. "Steve was the soldier that any other soldier would want beside him," says Nancy Burcham, Long's sister.
Burcham thinks her brother must have sprung into action, as he did when pinned under the burning helicopter, and gone looking for others to rescue. There were, in fact, many victims down the hallway, in the direction the two men went. And like Johnson, Long lived long enough to mount a rescue effort.
Some closure. Pentagon officials, however, have never been able to explain why Long and Johnson went where they did. So family members have filled in the blanks in ways they can live with. Nancy Burcham will be standing beside her brother's bench on September 11, convinced he died a hero. "I think he went back in trying to save people," she says.
After dealing with her husband's autopsy report, Joyce Johnson decided to get a master's degree in thanatology, the study of dying and grieving, and now she works with grieving children. Her daughter Cassie, now 23, just got married. Dennis's father, Robert, walked her down the aisle.
Joyce and her family have already visited Dennis's bench at the memorial, gazing into the E ring offices adjacent to the spot where husband, father, brother, and son died. Joyce and her daughter Dawn will be there on September 11, too, when each victim's name will be read aloud, followed by the ringing of a bell—a variation on the annual recitation of victims' names in New York. Joyce knows that when they get to Dennis M. Johnson, all of the sadness will rise, but that there might be a kind of relief, too. Because he will have a place. Even if it's not the place she wants, next to her.
Rick Newman is coauthor of Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11 (Ballantine, 2008). An excerpt is at usnews.com/firefight.