Pentagon Builds Memorial for Victims
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, it's Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. So we're going to be taking an advanced look at summer movies and hear about the music that's recently been recognized by the Library of Congress for its cultural significance. Plus, a roundtable of journalists on the advice they want to pass on to the next generation.
But first, we pause to remember. Memorial Day is considered a day to acknowledge members of the armed forces who lost their lives in service to the country. But today, we're going to take a look at a memorial to the people killed at the Pentagon on one of the ugliest days in American history, September 11th, 2001. On that day, terrorists crashed United flight 77 into the Pentagon, killing all 59 passengers and 125 people in the building. The damage to the Pentagon has long since been repaired. But a few hundred yards away, something new is under construction.
When we arrived on the scene, it was a gray day. Workers were busy pouring cement and laying in stone. Overhead, planes were flying in and out of Washington Reagan National Airport. Across the highway, the new Air Force memorial pokes into the sky. After donning a hard hat, safety goggles and a bright orange vest, we were ushered into the site by Jim Laychak. He's the president and chairman of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, which is overseeing the design and construction of the park. Jim, like the other members of the board, lost a loved one on September 11th, his brother Dave, a civilian working for the Department of the Army. Looking out over the site, I asked Jim about the process for getting the memorial built.
Mr. JIM LAYCHAK (President and Chairman, Pentagon Memorial Fund): The family members got involved with the Pentagon. There are about ten different sites that were selected and we could choose from. But as one family member said, the site was really chosen that day. You know, we all felt we wanted the memorial park to be as close to the impact site as it could. So it was really, as one family member said, it was really chosen that day.
MARTIN: Some people, when confronted with a tragedy like that, would like to just walk away from it, put the thing behind it. You've chosen, you and the other family members, have chosen to walk toward it, to be intimately engaged with the event on an ongoing basis, especially you working on this and the other family members. Why do you think that you've done that?
Mr. LAYCHAK: Well, I think different people approach tragedies in different way, and for me, the more I got involved in this, the more I started to realize that everything I've done in my life kind of gave me the preparation or the skills to kind of take on this one special project. So in many ways, you kind of look at this, how could I not do it? How could I not take this on for not only Dave but for everyone else who died that day?
MARTIN: How do you expect visitors to interact with the memorial when it's completed?
Mr. LAYCHAK: Well, it's interesting. One of the things we talked about when we were on the jury talking - looking at the final designs is that no one knows how or what rituals will develop after the park is open. Because I think, you know, many people didn't think that the Vietnam Memorial would be - not as popular, but people would want to take the rubbings of the names. I don't think that was something that people who designed that ever expected.
So I hope that, you know, that people will come here, will spend some time here, will think about what happened that day, will think about their own loved ones, will share stories about the people that died because the essence of this place is really, you know, remembering our loved ones and remembering, you know, what was great and special about each and every one of them. So I hope that's what this place becomes.
MARTIN: As we're standing here today, this looks very much like a construction site. There's a lot of fencing. There's a lot of equipment, a lot of gravel, a lot of dirt. Can you help us see what we're going to see when this memorial's complete?
Mr. LAYCHAK: Yeah. It's - for me, I mean, having been involved with it so long, you can see a lot of progress. But essentially, it's almost a two-acre park. And then there's a perimeter bench around the whole park. The memorial units, and you can start to see some of them in the distance, are stainless steel candle-leaver bench. Some are pointing toward the Pentagon. Some are pointing away from the Pentagon.
The main component of the memorial park is that memorial unit or bench for each person that died. And you can't see it here because of the way we're standing, but the benches are arranged according to the ages of the people that died. And they're on what they're called "age lines." So for instance, my brother was born in 1961, so he will be on the 1961 age line with everyone else that was born that year. And when you read the name at the end of the candle-leaver stainless steel bench - so when you read Dave's name at the end of the bench, you'll see the Pentagon in the background because he died in the Pentagon. For someone else who died on the plane, it would be reversed. You'd read their name and you'd see the sky in the background.
So these slabs here that you see right in front are the foundations of the pools of water for the three children that died. This one right up close here was the youngest, a three-year-old little girl. And then the next one is her sister, an eight-year-old little girl, and then three eleven-year-olds who were on the National Geographic school trip. So when you walk into the park, you'll see these benches right away. And then there will be a little bit of a gap before it picks back up again, and that's powerful in itself because you realize that these were the children that died on the plane. And then it picks back up again with someone who was of working age, 22, 23.
MARTIN: And you realize that these children had so much life in front of them...
Mr. LAYCHAK: Oh, absolutely.
MARTIN: When those lives were ended.
Mr. LAYCHAK: Well, everybody, when you think about it. It shows that it was a cross section of America - black, white, military, civilian, old, young, parents, grandparents, children. So it really shows the enormity of the impact.
MARTIN: Can you tell me about the last two benches that were recently cast?
Mr. LAYCHAK: Yes. We went out to St. Louis and they poured the benches, you know, into a mold, you know, this hot, molten stainless steel. And they pour the benches side-by-side. They've gotten it down to the process where they pour two at a time. And because of the way they're building the park - because you can see way out there where it's almost in completion, you can see a lot of the trees. So they're kind of, as I call it, painting their way out of the room so the last benches that are being installed are the children. So the last two benches that were poured in St. Louis, we knew were the children because it was the two sisters. It was the three-year-old and the eight-year-old, the Falkenburgs(ph).
MARTIN: And are these boxes - what's in these boxes? Is it marble...
Mr. LAYCHAK: That's the crates that the memorial units come in when they're shipped here on site. You were talking about the story where we were and we saw the last two benches for the little girls being poured. And then they're shipped to a polishing shop in Chicago, and it's like 90 hours of labor to polish each one to kind of get it to that, you know, to the sheen that you see it. And then they take the marble - not this one, but there's other, you know, marble, that they inlay into it. And eventually, the gravel, it will be covered - this is just kind of the base layer. But the gravel will be the same color as this.
MARTIN: The kind of a peach color?
Mr. LAYCHAK: Yeah. The beigish, you know, with golds and browns and beiges in it. So the intent is, you know, as you walk around the park, it kind of engages all the senses. You know, you hear the gravel underneath your feet. You can touch the Japanese paper bark. It'll have a bark that peels. The colors of the leaves are very vibrant in the September time frame and it'll last to hold their leaves. You can hear the water. You can see the water rippling. You got the lights at night. So it's all these different - and every time you come, you know, you'll probably take something different away, whether it's spring, summer, or winter or fall, it'll be a different experience each time.
MARTIN: I like the personalization. I don't know if that's something of the modern-day world that we want to look at an individual. But it is a reminder that these were all individual lives and they were singled out on the one hand, but they were not.
Mr. LAYCHAK: Well, we talked about, you know, it's an individual memorial. It's a collective memorial. And in a special way, kind of tells a story about what happened that day in terms of the fact that you've got children, you've got people on the plane, people in the building. You know, the randomness, you know, and ordering it by age, I think, is pretty powerful because it just, again, shows, you know, the impact of how many lives and all the families associated with those lives were impacted.
MARTIN: What's it been like working with the other families?
Mr. LAYCHAK: Oh, I mean, everybody, you know, the Board of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, Inc. are all family members, either people who lost someone on the plane or in the building. And whenever we have discussions or talk about things, we always kind of arrive, you know, in the same place. But when we have healthy discussions about that, I know that, you know, when we come to a conclusion or come to a consensus on something, it's probably a pretty good representation of the 194 other families.
You know, because everybody's got a different opinion on how to do something, but in the end, everybody's after the same end goal, right? Which is, how do we make sure we have a great memorial? We do it the right way. We do it in a way that, you know, people are proud to be a part of it. We do it in a way where we're raising money without spending a lot of money. You know, all those things that you try to do to make sure that it's a good story in the end. So...
MARTIN: You mentioned earlier that you're not sure how people are going to experience the memorial, particularly how family members are going to connect to it. Do you have any idea how you are going to?
Mr. LAYCHAK: I will, you know, surely spend time at my brother's bench. But I also feel that when I come here, I'm looking forward to kind of sitting in a far corner and just kind of observing and watching people interact with the memorial and just, you know, think how far we've come and how much we've accomplished over the last five or six years. So I think that's what it'll be like for me.
MARTIN: Is it ever hard for you to come here?
Mr. LAYCHAK: No. No. I mean, you know, my brother and all the people that died are in a better place. And this is really a place for us, you know, those of us left behind. So for me, I enjoy coming out here because every time I come you see more progress being made. And again, you think about what we've accomplished and what a great memorial this will be. So for me, it's, you know, I like coming out here and seeing the progress.
MARTIN: Are you ever worried that people will forget what happened on that day? Of course, you can never forget. Are you ever worried that other people will?
Mr. LAYCHAK: I think in many respects, a lot of people have. I mean, you know, people move on, people go on to different things. But I think that, you know, once we get this built and it will be a permanent tribute to everyone who died that day. And it will be a tribute and a reminder, you know, for those of us who witnessed what happened that day. And it'll be a - I believe, a great gift for future generations and for, you know, the men and women who are fighting overseas to keep us safe to kind of come back and see this and see, you know, what was built and see how close it is right next to our nation's military headquarters within, you know, the viewing of Arlington Cemetery. So it's a pretty, I think, going to be a very special place.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for this work. Thank you for helping us to remember.
Mr. LAYCHAK: Thank you.
MARTIN: Jim Laychak is president and chairman of the Pentagon Memorial Fund. He was kind enough to give us a tour and show us the progress being made toward building the memorial, which is expected to be dedicated later this year. Jim, thanks again so much for taking the time.
Mr. LAYCHAK: You're welcome. Thank you.
MARTIN: For more on the Pentagon Memorial Park, you can visit our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore, where you can see pictures of our visit.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.