Three Months On, Tension Lingers Near the Pentagon

Bill McKelway
Richmond Times-Dispatch
December 11, 2001

The Pentagon, the other "Ground Zero," looks deceptively unblemished.

Construction workers have cauterized and sealed its gaping, wedge-shaped wound. On a hillside a half-mile away, saddened mourners and stunned citizens have gathered daily for three months. They leave tokens of remembrance.

Thousands upon thousands of the patriotic mementos have been cleared away and stored inside the Pentagon itself—as though the five-sided building of concentric rings is strong enough to absorb not only the pain of the 190 people who died there, but also the grief of survivors.

"Thank you for the tremendous response!!" reads a printed sign at the site. It says that "all historical artifacts" have been collected "for their preservation and safekeeping."

Three months ago, on September 11 at 9:38 a.m., a Tuesday, Jose Velasquez heard the rumble of imminent death overhead. "I knew something was wrong. The planes come more from the north and west [to land at Reagan National Airport] not from the south. And not so low."

He was talking on the telephone that morning to a friend who was feeding him gauzy reports about airplane crashes at the World Trade Center in New York. But Velasquez slammed down the receiver and raced outside when he felt the gas station he supervises suddenly begin to tremble from a too-close airplane.

"It was like an earthquake," the Costa Rican native said last week. What Velasquez felt above him almost within touching distance was American Airlines Flight 77 just seconds before impact.

His gas station, open only to Department of Defense personnel, is the last structure between the Pentagon and the hillside that, hours later, would become a wailing knoll. "By the time I got outside all I could see was a giant cloud of smoke, first white then black, coming from the Pentagon," he said. "It was just a terrible, terrible thing to be so close to."

Today, Velasquez still trembles when he talks about the incident that has forever changed the military, government, and technology polyglot that is Northern Virginia. "Even today," said Velasquez, "people who come here tell me they are frightened to come to work. You can see it in their eyes."

Velasquez says the gas station's security cameras are close enough to the Pentagon to have recorded the moment of impact. "I've never seen what the pictures looked like," he said. "The FBI was here within minutes and took the film."

Continued on Next Page >>



NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.