Peoria Journal Star

September 11, 2002

More than a memory -- Damage to the Pentagon has been repaired,
but emotional scars are still healing

Dori Meinert

A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the hole in the side of the Pentagon is gone. Inside, the smell of jet fuel and smoke has given way to the scent of fresh paint and new carpeting.

But the emotional healing of those who survived the attack that killed 125 of their colleagues and 59 jet passengers is still ongoing.

''I still don't know why I'm here,'' said Army Sgt. Andrew Myers, 28, a Peoria native and 1992 graduate of Metamora Township High School. ''God has a plan for me. I'm still trying to find out what that is.''

Last Sept. 11, Myers had just finished reassuring his mother who had called from Peoria after a second plane crashed into the World Trade Center.

''Look, Mom, it's the Pentagon. Nothing's going to happen here,'' he told her.

Moments later, a large explosion shook his office, blowing out the windows and igniting a fireball nearby. Myers joined a mass of Pentagon workers pushing through smoke-filled hallways to get out of the building.

''It seemed like the hallway was a mile long,'' Myers said. ''The crowd was moving so slowly.''

Outside, he saw a huge, black cloud rise above the Pentagon. It wasn't until he saw a large piece of metal with the red letters ''can'' on it that he realized that they had been hit by an American Airlines jet.

The giant limestone slabs of the Pentagon wall ''looked like someone had put their thumb into silly putty and pushed it in,'' he said.

Myers joined a stretcher team and began helping carry out the wounded. He made two trips before being forced to leave because another plane was believed to be heading toward the Pentagon. By the time he returned, the damaged portion of the building had collapsed.

Myers ran into two friends frantically searching for their fiancees.
Together, they studied the outer walls trying to figure out whether the two women's offices had been hit.

''We drilled it into our minds that his fiancee's and my fiancee's offices were safe,'' said Myers' officemate, Kenneth Johnson Sr. ''But the walls play tricks on you. We were wrong.''

Back in Peoria, Myers' father also feverishly studied the Pentagon walls when they were flashed on television. He tried to compare the image with a postcard of the Pentagon where he had marked his son's office location. He activated the prayer chain at St. Vincent's Catholic Church in Peoria.

''We were pretty scared,'' said Robert Myers Sr., 49, a church deacon. ''We had been to the Pentagon several times and I was trying to get my bearings. The more I looked, the more I thought: ''Oh, my God, it's on his side.'''

On the other side of the massive Pentagon building, another Peoria native also had been watching the events in New York City on TV, but wasn't aware of the Pentagon attack until someone knocked on the door of her high-security office and told her to evacuate.

When she got outside, Army Staff Sgt. Holli Crawford, 34, a 1986 Manual High School graduate, saw the huge black cloud.

She ran past the Pentagon's child care center, a free-standing building, where workers were wheeling cribs filled with infants across a grassy area. She scooped up two toddlers in her arms and kept running.

''Someone said another plane was coming. It scared us to death,'' Crawford said. ''There was a lot of crying, a lot of screaming.''

Meanwhile, Stephanie Wyatt, the oldest of Crawford's 10 siblings, most of whom live in Peoria, fielded calls from the rest of family. No one, not even Crawford's husband, had heard from her. She didn't respond to her pager.

''We were on pins and needles all day. We didn't know what to think,'' Wyatt said.

The waiting was especially hard on Crawford's 76-year-old father, Bester Danage Jr., whose wife had died just two months before. But Crawford said she thinks the uncertainty was most painful for her two daughters and their classmates at school on a suburban Virginia Army base, where many children have parents stationed at the Pentagon.

The next few weeks were difficult for most Pentagon employees. Many had lost close friends. Yet they were working around the clock on clean-up, reconstruction and war planning.

Crawford's 12-year-old daughter cried, begging her mother not to go back to work at the Pentagon. Crawford's husband bought her a cell phone. She returned to work Sept. 12 to the sight of white body bags in the open courtyard where employees usually enjoy their lunch.

''That didn't make it any easier for somebody to come back to work who was still grieving,'' Crawford said.

For the next week, employees faced numerous evacuations - whenever a water main broke or a ceiling collapsed. The soot was so bad that they wore surgical masks in the hallways. One woman's hair fell out from the post-Sept. 11 stress. Another, who wasn't in her office when the attack occurred, lost all of her soldiers. She asked to transfer out of the building.

''People don't know. They just say everything's back to normal. Well, it's not,'' Crawford said. ''A lot of people were hurt mentally. Sometimes, that takes a lot longer to heal than the physical injuries.''

But most just kept working. Crawford is executive assistant to the deputy
assistant secretary of defense for resources and plans.

As ''war planners'' Crawford and her office mates worked 24-hour days, she said. ''And I don't mean in shifts.''

In those early weeks, Myers accompanied Johnson, who lost his fiancee, to daily briefings for victims' families. Johnson, who is logistics coordinator for the Army chief of staff, was working overtime ordering supplies. He asked that Myers be allowed to assist him. They now share a small, two-person office decorated with flags and photos of Johnson's fiancee,
Molly McKenzie. They're grateful to be together.

''It helps to sit here and talk back and forth,'' Johnson said.

Neither has taken advantage of the professional counseling that the Pentagon has offered. They're too busy, they say. But they've found other ways to cope with their grief. Johnson has remembered Molly and other Sept. 11 victims with nine tattoos added to his body.

For July 4th, Myers helped Johnson create a memorial in the yard of
Johnson's apartment building. They lined up 184 miniature flags with all the precision of the headstones at Arlington Cemetery. They created a border of white lights in a pentagon shape. And, every half hour on the evening of July 4, Johnson set off a smoke bomb at one end.

Myers, who received a medal of commendation for his part in the rescue efforts, has one regret about those early weeks. He talked with friends and other family members about what happened that day, but he couldn't immediately discuss the details with his wife.

''I was angry and sad and scared that World War III was going to start,'' he said. ''I didn't want her to see what I saw, to go through what I had gone through. She was hurt.''

For about five months, Myers was haunted by a reoccurring dream. He didn't dream about any of the gruesome sights he saw on the ground that day. Myers dreamed he was on a low-flying plane and that just before it crashed, he opened a door and jumped out. He doesn't know what it means.

Before Sept. 11, he'd been toying with the idea of getting out of the Army where he'd spent his last nine years. This past year, he decided to do it. With his wife and young daughter, he's moving back to Peoria in late September, hoping to get a job in law enforcement. He wants to be closer to family.

He knows the events of Sept. 11 have changed him.

''I'm constantly observing people,'' he said. ''I make sure every seat belt in the car is fastened. I'm just very cautious because I've been given a second chance.''

Crawford, a deeply religious woman before Sept. 11, said she finds that she now sees people in a new way. She and her co-workers had always been a close-knit group. But now they're closer than ever.

One of them was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last November. He came to work every day even after he lost his sight and use of one arm. Crawford would help him with his medication, feed him lunch and fit his motionless arm into a sling. He died last spring.

''Sept. 11 made me realize how precious life is,'' Crawford said.