Sixteen years ago, the building housing the U.S. Department of Defense came under attack. American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing all 59 passengers on board the plane and 125 people working in the building.
Today, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial stands next to where the plane entered the building, honoring those lost on a day that forever changed America.
Jamie McIntyre, The Washington Examiner’s senior defense writer, was inside the Pentagon working as a correspondent for CNN at the time of the attacks. Speaking with VOA at the memorial, he called it “sacred ground.”
“I stood here on September 11,” McIntyre said, “and to someone who lived through it, it’s kind of a defining moment in your life.”
Among those killed in the attack was David Laychak, a civilian employee with the U.S. Army who had been in and out of his office at the Pentagon because of renovations to the building.
“I didn’t even know if Dave was in the building. I didn’t expect him to be in the building,” his brother James Laychak, the president of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, told VOA.
Laychak recalled being at home about three kilometers from the Pentagon when he and his wife felt the windows shake. They were watching their TV screens air footage from the Twin Towers attack in New York, and they remember wondering whether the Pentagon could have also been a target.
As the hours turned into days without contact from David Laychak, the nightmare was confirmed: He had gone to the Pentagon that day, and he had not survived the attack. He left behind a wife, Laurie, and two children, Zach, 9, and Jenny, 7.
Symbolism of memorial
Plans for the memorial started a few weeks later.
Laychak said the victims’ family members first worked with the Pentagon to secure a plot of land near the impact point.
After years of fundraising, designing and building the memorial, it was dedicated and opened to the public on September 11, 2008. The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial was the first of the 9/11 memorials to be opened, Laychak said. Even though it’s just steps away from the U.S. military headquarters, it’s open to the public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“I think that’s a testament to our country,” Laychak said. “The only time it’s been closed is when we’ve had major snowstorms.”
The memorial is designed like a timeline, with September 11, 2001, serving as what Lachak calls the “zero line.”
From there, there are benches, one for each victim, organized by their birthdays. Five benches bunched near the zero line serve as memorials to the five children killed onboard Flight 77. After a gap, more benches emerge on the timeline to represent all of the adults killed in the attack, whose ages range from their early 20s to 71, the age of retired U.S. Navy Captain John Yamnicky Sr., who was killed on the plane.
If a visitor has to face the Pentagon to read a victim’s name on a bench, the visitor knows that person was killed in the building. If a visitor reads a name on a bench and sees the skyline, then the visitor knows that person was killed in the plane. The trees on the memorial’s grounds, once tiny saplings, have grown over the years to provide shade as people sit and reflect in the memorial. The sound of the cool water that runs below the benches is calming.
Laychak thinks his brother would approve of the site.
“I do this to honor my brother’s memory and to honor all the people who died here so we never forget them,” he said.
He’s now working to fund a Visitor Education Center to complement the site and help tell the stories of those lost. When completed, the new center will rest on the other side of Washington Boulevard, overlooking the highway on the flight path of Flight 77 right before it entered the building.