x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The Pentagon's park of peace

A memorial of 184 benches, each with the name of a victim, is the only permanent tribute to those who died on September 11.

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA // Situated between a car park, a web of interstate motorways and the fortress-like structure that houses the US defence department, this two-acre "park", as it is now known, is an unlikely place to find peace and quiet. Aeroplanes from nearby Reagan National Airport roar overhead; helicopters carrying senior US officials, including the president, frequently pass by. There is a near-constant whoosh of cars on Interstate 395 and Virginia State Route 27.

But when Jim Laychak visits this memorial to the 184 people, including his younger brother, who died when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the west side of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 all distractions slip away. "You tend to lose yourself in here," Mr Laychak said on a recent afternoon, standing inside the memorial park, just a few hundred metres from where his brother was sitting in the Pentagon when the plane struck. "You kind of get lost in your own thoughts."

Eight years since that tragic day, the memorial at the Pentagon is the only permanent tribute at any of the three sites where American lives were lost. At the former site of the World Trade Center in New York, where nearly 3,000 people died, the construction of the 9/11 Memorial Museum - and a spiral-shaped skyscraper called the Freedom Tower - have been slowed by political wrangling, engineering complications and the economic recession. Meanwhile, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field, killing 33 passengers and seven crew members, a dispute with landowners has delayed construction, leaving only a makeshift monument to honour the dead.

The Pentagon Memorial encountered few such obstacles. In 2002, a worldwide design competition was held and a winning scheme was announced a year later. The Pentagon Memorial Fund, a non-profit fund-raising organisation, headed by Mr Laychak, raised US$22 million (Dh81m) for the construction, mostly through private donations. Among the donors was the government of Taiwan, which put up $1m to honour a Taiwanese couple who died in the crash.

George W Bush, the former president, dedicated the Pentagon Memorial last year. Today, President Barack Obama attended a wreath-laying ceremony to mark its one-year anniversary. There is no visitor centre here and no tour guides. No statistics are kept on how many people come to pay respects. But "it always seems like there's people out here experiencing it," Mr Laychak said. "We wanted it to be a special place and I think it's turned into that."

The memorial consists of 184 "cantilever" stainless-steel benches, each inscribed with the name of a victim. A pool of flowing water runs beneath each bench, cycled through a heated pump system that keeps it from freezing in cold temperatures. The sound of running water is constant, as is the crunch of gravel beneath the footsteps of visitors. The design and orientation of the benches are meant to tell the story of what happened here eight years ago. Benches facing away from the Pentagon represent victims who were inside the building; benches facing towards the Pentagon represent those aboard the incoming plane. All of the benches are aligned along the flight path of the Boeing 757, which ploughed into the concrete-walled military complex at about 853kph. The benches are also organised in ascending order by the birth year of the deceased, starting with Dana Falkenberg, a three-year-old passenger on the plane who was killed along with her parents and eight-year-old sister. The last bench honours a 71-year-old former Navy test pilot, John Yamnicky Sr, who survived combat missions in Korea and Vietnam and was travelling to Los Angeles on business for a Virginia-based military contractor.

An array of people lost their lives that day: six public school teachers and students who were taking part in a field trip sponsored by the National Geographic Society, a 48-year-old executive vice president of an international diamond manufacturer, a 39-year-old flight attendant from Baltimore. The list goes on. Mr Laychak's brother, Dave, a father of two, was a civilian Army budget analyst for the Pentagon who had recently uprooted his family from Arizona to move to Virginia.

There is no defined path for visitors at the memorial park, and that is precisely the point, said Julie Beckman, who along with her husband, Keith Kasemen, submitted the winning design. The couple, fresh out of graduate school, beat out more than 1,000 submissions from world-class architects in more than 65 countries. "It's meant to be a place that enables visitors to have their own interpretations and their thoughts and their memories of what happened that day," said Ms Beckman, a former New Yorker, who watched as United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Ms Beckman said designing the memorial helped her cope with her own grief.

"There is really no one way to remember September 11," she said. "We tried to create a place that enabled a wide array of experiences to be remembered." Sometimes visitors linger here for hours; others, move through the memorial more rapidly. Some sit on the benches; others, more reserved, stick to the brick pathways that run throughout the park. On a recent visit, Ms Beckman saw a naval officer, clad in his all-white uniform, kneeling by one of the benches with his head in the palm of his hands. The officer stood after several minutes, patted the bench gently as if it were a child, and walked away. On another visit, Ms Beckman saw children playing on the benches, climbing on top of them and jumping off the sides.

"[The monuments] are meant to be interacted with. You're meant to touch them, and sit on them, and run your fingers through the water and scrape your feet along the gravel to hear your footsteps," she said. "The memorial is also meant to emphasise life." Guards who work near the park say visitors come from various US states and countries and at all times - the park is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The volume of people has noticeably increased with the approach of the September 11 anniversary, one guard said.

On a recent afternoon, visitors included a state government worker from Pennsylvania, a pair of naval linguists from Illinois and Maryland, and Leslie Lee of Seattle, Washington, who strode deliberately up and down the rows of monuments offering a prayer for each one. "It's a little overwhelming, the numbers," said Ms Lee, who nevertheless described the memorial as "peaceful" and "serene". "I thank them all for giving their lives and pray that they watch over their families."

sstanek@thenational.ae