WASHINGTON — The names were read slowly and solemnly. The Navy bell clanged respectfully after each was intoned. The sky was as bright and blue and cheerful as it was the morning 18 years ago.
Once again the sun rose over the Pentagon this morning. As it did, a small group of Pentagon workers unfurled a large 20-by-38-foot American flag over the side of the building where American Airlines flight #77 struck at 9:37 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.
The flag was unfurled at 6:46 a.m. today — the same time a similar flag was displayed two days after the attacks 18 years ago. It was a way of saying then that the Pentagon was back.
Today, the president of the United States, the secretary of defense, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff and relatives of the 184 killed when American Airlines flight #77 crashed into the west side of the Pentagon came to the same spot — now a garden of benches, fountains and lights for remembrance.
“We are all connected together as one Pentagon family,” it was said as the ceremony started.
The 1.93-acre park contains a bench for each of the victims, arranged according to their year of birth, ranging from 1930 to 1998. Inside is a chapel dedicated to the victims and their families. The corridor leading to the chapel and outside to the memorial garden is lined with quilts sent by students from across the U.S. paying homage to those who died.
In 2001 the west side of the Pentagon had recently been renovated. Because of that, it was not fully occupied when the attack came. The damaged sections of the Pentagon were rebuilt, with occupants moving back into the section in August 2002.
Today’s ceremony will be the last for several months as the park is to be closed to permit repairs to the lighting systems in the pools under the memorial benches and replacement of the memorial’s entire electrical system, including all the bench lighting. The memorial, which was dedicated Sept. 11, 2008, is normally open 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
“We are aware of the impact that this closure will have on family members and visitors to the Pentagon Memorial,” the Pentagon said in a release on Monday. “Every effort has been made to develop a construction plan that will enable the work to be completed in a quick and efficient manner, reducing site closure time.”
A planned reopening is set for May 29, 2020.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the joint chiefs of staff, said at the ceremony that the Pentagon today continues “doing what must be done.” He also ironically touched on the larger frustration in the Pentagon, as the war in Afghanistan continues unabated into its 18th year, by noting that “a new generation of men and women have stepped forward to protect our way of life.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper agreed, saying that “September 11 may have transformed our nation but it also reaffirmed America’s commitment to defend our people and our way of life.”
President Donald Trump told the relatives that September 11, 2001, is “your anniversary of personal and permanent loss. It’s the day that has replayed in your memory a thousand times over.
“The last kiss. The last phone call. The last time hearing those precious words, ‘I love you.’ Then the attack. The anguish of knowing your family member had boarded one of these flights or was working in the World Trade Center or serving right here at the Pentagon,” the president said.
In the afternoon, Esper, former President George W. Bush, and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial to commemorate those killed. Rumsfeld was defense secretary at the time of the attack and rushed to the scene to aid in the rescue efforts.
Today, the American Airlines morning nonstop flight from IAD to LAX no longer is #77. Planes still fly low over the Pentagon as they use nearby Reagan National Airport, sending a shudder to Pentagon workers still many years later.
Tonight, though, no fires will flicker up from the building into the empty sky. Those fires burn elsewhere 18 years later, in a battle still engaged.