Five women to share tales of the attacks

Military officers to speak about their service on Sept. 11

`Very compelling stories'

Event celebrates Women's History Month at BWI

March 21, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

But for her sweater and a morning meeting that took her from her Pentagon office to another room in the sprawling building Sept. 11, Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills wouldn't be here today.

The meeting started minutes before her desk was engulfed in flames. The sweater, soaked from the sprinklers, provided water as Wills and her co-workers sucked on its fibers as they groped for an exit through the smoke. Wills led the procession to a window on the second floor, where they jumped to safety.

Wills, the Army personnel chief's liaison to Congress, won the Soldier's Medal for her valor that day. But the mother of two from Prince George's County insists the real heroes are those fighting in Afghanistan.

"If any American would have been in that building, they would have done the same thing," Wills said. "My part is to tell the story, so that Americans know what happened in that building."

Wills will do that today at Baltimore-Washington International Airport's Observation Gallery. The event, titled "Today's Heroes: Women Defending America's Freedom," is timed to commemorate National Women's History Month. She will share the stage with four military aviators representing the Navy, Air National Guard, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, each with their account of the morning of Sept. 11.

"They got up that day, as did all of us, not knowing how their day was going to go," said Betsey Sanpere, who coordinates BWI's cultural and community programs. "We all worked at the airport that day. No industry understands the impact of Sept. 11 more than those of us who work in aviation."

In the fall, Sanpere helped fill the terminal with jugglers and Groucho Marx look-alikes to coax smiles from irritated and anxious passengers in long lines.

Today's event, coupled with a Sept. 11 children's art exhibit that hangs in the terminal near the C concourse, is a departure from such light-hearted entertainment. While some who are preparing to board flights might pass, preferring not to focus on the day when planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Sanpere said she hopes passengers will stop to listen.

"These are very compelling stories," she said, "and they're positive."

In addition to Wills, the BWI audience will hear from: Coast Guard Lt. Kristina Saliceti of Atlantic City, N.J., who spent the weeks after Sept. 11 coordinating air patrols along the East Coast; Lt. Cmdr. Michelle Guidry, a Navy pilot who was flying a C-130 while six months pregnant when the Federal Aviation Administration closed the airspace Sept. 11; Marine 1st Lt. Jennifer Marino, a 1998 Naval Academy graduate who was flying helicopters in California, and who's preparing to be deployed overseas; and an Air National Guard lieutenant identified only as "Lucky," whose F-16 escorted Air Force One back to Washington after the attacks.

Guidry, who is stationed at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County, is the only female officer in her squadron. She has four children, including her son Garrett, who turns 4 months old today. But as she sat in her C-130 on Sept. 11, she says, she focused only on the job: escorting a small civilian plane to a safe landing after the airspace was closed.

Like Wills, Guidry says she isn't craving recognition in women's history classes.

"I'm hoping they'll look at me as a service member, not as a woman. I'm trying to downplay my sex, and I've been doing that for 14 years in the Navy," Guidry said.

In May, Guidry will move to a desk job, where she will oversee weaponry aboard Navy planes. She often reminds awe-struck Louisiana high-school chums that she's

just a woman juggling day care and dinner who happens to test the nation's weapons systems.

"You make choices," she said. "I think I've made the right ones so far."

At the Pentagon, Wills' colleague, Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, says few can forget the split-second choices she made the day of the attack.

"She is a remarkable individual," he said. "She helped a lady who couldn't go on."

Wills stopped at her office that morning to pick up her sweater and catch up with a co-worker. She never saw the woman again.

Wills headed to her biweekly meeting in a Pentagon conference room. An explosion blew her across the room. She crouched in a fetal position, her hair on fire. As she searched for an open door, an older woman who was a civilian employee grabbed the cuffs of her pants, complaining that she couldn't breathe.

"I said, here, suck on my sweater," Wills recalled. The fibers had absorbed water.

"I told her, `No, we've got to get out. Just get on my back.' She kept me going, because I knew I had her."

When Wills finally reached a window, she realized others were behind her. She and another officer broke the window. The crowd helped Wills and the others down 40 feet to safety.

Bruised, burned and barely breathing, Wills rode in a station wagon to Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. On the way, she said, "I literally could feel myself dying."

It would be hours before Wills' husband and two daughters learned where she was, and days before Wills learned that the Pentagon and the World Trace Center had been attacked. Now, Wills said, she hugs each daughter a full minute every morning. And when she speaks to groups about Sept. 11, she focuses on her two core themes: America's resilience and God's grace.

"I really feel blessed by even being here," she said. "Just to explain it to people, it blows my own mind sometimes."

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