Pentagon Memorial Remembers 9/11 Attacks

The first major memorial dedicated to 9/11 opens Thursday at the Pentagon.

September 11, 2008, 7:45 AM

Sept. 11, 2008 -- Remember… Reflect… Renew.

Such is the call to visitors of the Pentagon Memorial, which is being dedicated today to the memory of the 184 people who perished in the Sept. 11 attack on the military headquarters.

Seven years after American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, the nation's first major memorial to the tragic events of 9/11 will open to the public later today following a dedication ceremony attended by 20,000 guests, including President Bush.

It is a small park of memorial benches and trees located just feet from where the plane struck the building. Its completion has been a labor of love for those involved in the construction and of fundraising for the privately funded memorial.

Family members of those who died in the attack played an important role in raising the millions needed for the memorial's construction and insisted that the memorial should be placed at the site of the plane's impact into the building.

Everything about the memorial's understated design is intended to provide visitors with an individual experience to reflect on the lives lost in the attack on the Pentagon.

"We wanted to layer in specific hints and clues about who these people were and …just to the point that we could allow interpretation to be what this place is all about, that it's just a contemplative place," says memorial co-designer Kevin Kaseman.

"It's an individual memorial. It's a collective memorial. It kind of tells a story of what happened that day," says Jim Laychak, who heads the Pentagon Memorial Fund and whose brother David died on 9/11.

Small trees and cantilevered benches emerge from the gravel that covers the entire park.

The benches are aligned along the plane's flight path into the building and arranged according to whether a victim was on the plane or in the building. If the victim's nameplate on the bench can be read with the Pentagon in the background, the person died in the building. If the sky is in the background, the person died aboard the plane.

An "age wall" slopes from three inches high for 3-year-old Dana Falkenberg to 71 inches high for 71-year-old John Yamnicky to represent the range of ages of the victims from youngest to oldest.

Underneath each bench is a small self-contained pool of trickling water.

"You can just hear the water running now and it's a soothing effect or you're inside this place and you lose yourself in it,"says Laychak. "You don't hear the planes. You don't hear the cars. You don't hear the noise from around the world. You just kind of lose yourself."

Thomas Heidenberger, whose wife, Michele, was the lead flight attendant on flight 77, said he was awed during his first visit to the completed memorial last month. "You get a sense that this is hallowed ground," he said. "This is in many respects almost sacred ground, where 184 people have lost their lives and at the same time you get a sense of the senselessness of it and a sense that, yeah, we were attacked."

He says the memorial has also provided healing for his family. During a visit with his son two weeks ago, Heidenberger says his son turned to him and said, "Dad, it gives us a sense of closure."

Memorial co-designer Julie Beckman says the design is intended to evoke similar sentiments among other visitors to the new memorial. "This is where those 184 people, this was the last place that they lived. We wanted to make a place for people to come and remember, reflect, and renew."

Adds Kaseman, "You can get up close to it and it's something you can sit on and have a relationship with, that's much different than you can with the building."

The memorial will be open to visitors 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But that accessibility poses a unique challenge to those tasked with protecting a Pentagon building where security measures were significantly increased in the wake of 9/11.

"We want to respect the intent of the memorial to be a solemn area but at the same time keep a high level of security here," says Chris Layman, a spokesman for the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. "That's our challenge."

Among the security compromises, visitors will not be allowed to park at the Pentagon and are encouraged to use the Washington subway system.

Though now open to the public, the fundraising effort to pay off the memorial will continue. So far, $19 million of the memorial's $22 million construction costs have been donated and an additional $10 million is needed to fund an endowment to maintain the memorial.

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