Forging a Lasting Tie to Pentagon Victims

PEVELY, Mo. -- The metal for Zoe and Dana Falkenberg was just under 3,000 degrees, glowing in heavy, black cauldrons that hung from the ceiling on cables and huge iron hooks. Workers at MetalTek International, a foundry 30 miles south of St. Louis, had finished the memorials for all the other victims, and they had saved those for the youngest, the two sisters, for last.

The girls and their parents were heading to Australia for a family vacation Sept. 11, 2001, when hijackers seized their plane and slammed it into the western side of the Pentagon at 530 mph. Zoe was 8 years old. Dana was 3.

When the nation's first 9/11 memorial opens at the Pentagon this Sept. 11, two long, curving, stainless steel benches engraved with the sisters' names will be among the first objects visitors see. There will be 184 memorial benches at the site, one for each of the 125 people killed in the building and the 59 who died on American Airlines Flight 77.

It was something of a milestone, then, for the small crowd that gathered in yellow hard hats and plastic goggles on the shop floor of MetalTek one recent morning to watch the sisters' benches forged side by side. Engineers and metallurgists stood with victims' family members as workers in protective suits and welder's masks streamed molten steel into special, sand-lined casts, from which sparks and jagged flames erupted.

Emotional Scene as Final Memorial Benches Take Form »

Six-and-a-half years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the brief ceremony was a chance to think about what had changed since, for victims' families and the country, and what might change when the memorial is completed.

Jim Laychak looked into the fire and thought of his younger brother David, killed at his desk in the Pentagon, and of the Falkenberg sisters. "I take a lot of comfort in the fact that my brother didn't know what hit him. He was gone in a second," said Laychak, president of the Pentagon Memorial Fund. "But I often think about the girls on that plane, and how scared they would have been.

"They died together," he said, "and here they're pouring their benches together as kind of the last step in this process."

Smoke from the castings rolled up to the rafters, and the image took Rosemary Dillard back to the crash site and the smoldering wreckage where her husband, Eddie, was buried.

"I remember how many days the fire burned after 9/11 with our loved ones in it," she said. "But fire is amazing. And now we see it creating a memorial to them."

When the last cauldrons were emptied, the MetalTek workers who had forged the 184 benches over the past year removed their masks and gloves and greeted the families. They stood for pictures. Soon, the workers would go back to making petrochemical machinery, mining equipment and food processing parts.

"You take pride in everything, but working for these people who lost their lives, that's special," said Ike Quilling, who was celebrating his 30th year with the company that day.

A co-worker, Kent Hennemann, had imagined the benches in place at the faraway memorial in Arlington County. He's used to making obscure industrial parts that few people notice, he said. This was different. "Your grandkids can go and say, 'That's something my grandpa did,' " Hennemann said. "It means a lot to the country."

Neither man, nor the company, had worked on anything like the benches before. Each bench is 14 feet long and weighs 1,100 pounds, a rustproof, corrosion-proof cantilevered arc of stainless steel.

Engineers said the benches were extremely difficult to make, even for a company that specializes in making precision parts for undersea oil exploration. The technical challenges forced innovations in techniques and equipment to prevent the narrower sections of the steel from warping as they cooled. If measurements were off by as little as a quarter of an inch, the massive objects had to be recast.

"The benches aren't just a casting; they're a work of art," MetalTek President Jerry Markham said. It took the company and the memorial's designers four years to perfect the prototype and the production method, he said. Workers then began making three to four a week.

From the MetalTek foundry, a dim, clamorous warehouse along Interstate 55, the benches are trucked north to Bucthel Metal Finishing in Elk Grove Village, Ill., just outside Chicago, where they are smoothed and polished to glimmering uniformity. After that, they're loaded on trucks and driven to Arlington.

Some 110 have already been installed at the Pentagon. The benches will be arranged according to victims' ages, from 71-year-old John D. Yamnicky to Dana Falkenberg, one of five children to die in the attack. A shallow reflecting pool of flowing water will be under each bench and will illuminate the steel at night. If a victim had family members who were killed in the attack, their names will be engraved on the bottom of the pool.

"I'm beginning to see that this will actually be built, that it'll be finished," said Wendy Ploger, whose father, Robert Ploger, and his wife, Zandra, died on their way to a honeymoon in Hawaii. "All these past years, I haven't allowed myself to think that, because we've been so focused on the details of the project."

Ploger watched the liquid metal flow into the castings and thought of how much her father, an Annandale resident who was an engineer and furniture maker, would have delighted in the scientific and technical aspects of the foundry process.

Often, Ploger said, it seems to her as if he has been gone a long time. "But then you sort of forget about what happened and think your father's there, and you can just call him," she said. "I guess it's still pretty fresh."

After losing her father, Ploger quit her job as a graphic designer and moved to New York to become a professional photographer.

"I don't know if it was because of 9/11, but I just started to realize that life was too short, and I needed to be following my passion, no matter what the cost," she said. "He would be proud of the direction I've taken."

Like Ploger, Dillard moved away from the Washington area, returning to her native Michigan to care for her mother. "It's a lonely life," Dillard said. "My husband and I had so many things we were going to do. We were in our 50s, and this was going to be our slow-down period. I think about the things he would be doing, the things he'd be saying."

When Dillard returned home after visiting the foundry, she searched online through news stories of the past few years, thinking about the changes since the day her husband was killed. The world has grown darker and more troubled, she said.

"The price of gas. The price of food. There are all these things happening to us and to the world," Dillard said. She thinks the country is divided now. She sees "the hurt, the anger, the disgust."

The memorial, she hopes, will remind people of a different time, when the country came together to face fear and grief.

"We have to go back to the days and nights following September 11th," Dillard said. "People were kind to each other, even driving down the street. I think we became a closer nation for a certain amount of time, and I don't think we're as close now as we were then."

- Nick Miroff

By washingtonpost.com editors |  June 20, 2008; 10:54 AM ET  | Category:  Articles
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