Quiet remembrance at the Pentagon 20 years after attack
It was the sky on Saturday at the Pentagon that survivors said felt the most eerie: blue and cloudless, just like it had been that morning exactly 20 years ago when Flight 77 tore through the west side of the building and killed 184.
"It was a little cooler that day, but man, it looked just like this," said Fred Hodges, 74, a retired Pentagon police officer who responded to the scene on Sept. 11, 2001, and helped pull people from the wreckage.
He remembered how normally that day had begun, how he had just finished explaining protocol to a recruit as he turned to drive past the gate at the Pentagon Mall entrance and then heard a massive boom. Soon, plumes of thick black smoke streamed skyward. Hodges raced toward the scene.
Twenty years later, he was one of hundreds who gathered at the Pentagon to try to find meaning and comfort on the anniversary of the day that permanently altered their lives. Just after 9 a.m., military officials and bereaved families dabbed their eyes and bowed their heads as each of the 184 people killed at the Pentagon were memorialized by a photo and the ring of a bell.
The faces of the deceased, smiling and frozen in time, gazed out at the crowd in a slide show of photographs. Some were professional and posed. Others were tightly cropped wedding photos, yearbook portraits and pictures plucked from personal family albums.
Every few minutes, a deep rumble cut through the quiet as airliners from Reagan National Airport flew past.
"The people we lost that day are not just names and numbers," Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said to the crowd. "We remember them today for not only who they were but who they could have become."
Just after 9:37 a.m., almost exactly 20 years to the minute since the terrorists plowed the airliner into the complex's west side, everyone at the Pentagon paused for a moment of silence.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin addressed the families of the fallen.
"We know that you bear your losses not just at times of ceremony," he said. "But also in ordinary moments of absence."
Austin also honored the lives lost in Afghanistan, a war that started in the wake of 9/11 and ended with the loss of 13 soldiers who were too young to remember the World Trade Center towers falling.
"Let me underscore again how much we owe to all those who fought and all those who fell while serving our country in Afghanistan," he said.
Among the crowd on the Pentagon lawn on Saturday was N.J. Menchaca, who flew from Texas to Washington to pay respects to her late sister, Dora Marie Menchaca.
Dora was a mother, wife, beloved daughter and an accomplished epidemiologist who was a passenger on Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon.
"It never leaves you, wondering what they could have contributed if they were alive today," Menchaca said, who especially missed her sister when the coronavirus pandemic devastated her hometown of San Antonio. "I know she would have told me to trust the science. I do that. But I have to believe that maybe she would have helped guide us if she were still here."
In her cab ride to the Sept. 11 memorial service early Saturday, Mancheca said she cried as the cabdriver told her he was at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. He told her he had dropped off a journalist racing to the scene.
As she wept, he also began to cry, she said.
When she got out of the car, they embraced - strangers joined by one terrible day.
Across the Washington region Saturday, there were other moments of shared grief to honor the men, women and children who perished 20 years ago in the deadliest attack on U.S. soil.
From a military reservation in Reisterstown, Md., Republican Gov. Larry Hogan paid tribute to the 69 Marylanders who died in the attack - including 3- and 8-year-old sisters traveling to Australia with their parents when terrorists hijacked their plane and crashed it into the Pentagon.
"Twenty years ago, a generation ago, we said that we would never forget," he said. "And we have not."
At a D.C. fire station, Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser and other city leaders laid wreaths beside a steel beam from the World Trade Center. The city will install the beam outside of its Fire and EMS Training Academy to honor the sacrifice and courage of first-responders.
The recruit class that graduated from the training academy on Friday, according to the fire department, was the first in which every member was born after Sept. 11, 2001.
Fire and EMS Chief John Donnelly Sr. vowed to teach the new generation of first-responders lessons their industry gleaned from that dark day: about building construction, how to shield from toxic debris that can cause cancer and the importance of mental health.
Bowser, who proclaimed Saturday as "Sept. 11, 2001 Day of Remembrance," recognized the first responders for their bravery and highlighted the continued sacrifices they make to protect Washington residents and - especially after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack - the federal government.
"No matter what is happening," she said, "our public safety teams are working around the clock and hand in hand with our federal and regional partners to protect D.C. residents, to protect visitors, to protect our national leaders and to protect our nation's democracy."
City leaders also paid their respects to the District residents who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, which included three D.C. Public School students and three teachers on a field trip. The students, chosen by National Geographic, were on Flight 77 to California to visit a marine sanctuary off the coast when they were killed. Today, they would have been getting ready to graduate from college.
On the anniversary of historic pain and suffering, some grievers and survivors said they found comfort in the shared moments of reflection.
Hodges, who was awarded the medal of valor for his rescue efforts in the wake of the attack, said he can still see the face of the people he saved - and those who perished.
"It stayed with me, even after all this time," he said. "People always say so, but I hope we never forget."
A 22-year veteran of the Pentagon police force and 26-year Army service member, Hodges said standing among survivors and their families felt like a coming home.
"We're like family," he said. "All of us."