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Forging a Lasting Tie to Victims Of the Attack on the Pentagon

Article - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Nick Miroff

The Washington Post

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.

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."

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