Pentagon families face daily struggle to go on

Coping: For the hundreds still mourning the loss of loved ones, old routines have become new challenges.

2001 9/11 2002

One Year

September 08, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The daily routine is as fast-paced as it ever was - up at 6 a.m., into the car by 6:30, where two groggy children nibble on breakfast during the hourlong commute from Southern Maryland into Northern Virginia. Then later, back home for dinner and to bed again.

It was a routine built for the two of them, by the two of them - by Donn Marshall and his wife, Shelley. But now, Drake, 4, and Chandler, 2, have just Donn to count on, as they have since the morning of Sept. 11. It's remembered by the world as the morning that terrorists attacked America, remembered in the Marshall home as the morning they lost Mommy.

When thousands died that day - when four planes plummeted out of the bluest of skies into the World Trade Center, into the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania - the thousands more who loved them, who counted on them, whose lives were interwoven with theirs were left to figure out how they could go on.

After Donn Marshall found out that his 37-year-old wife was one of the 184 casualties of the attack on the Pentagon, a counselor came to see him with these words: "The most important thing you can do is give your sorrow meaning."

Marshall is trying to follow the advice. He copes with the loss of his wife - the woman he met a decade ago when they sat in adjacent cubicles at work - by talking about her often, by giving his children memories of their mother they won't make for themselves and by sharing with others the things that gave his wife great comfort.

Within days of her death, he created the Shelley A. Marshall Foundation. Its first large donation came by way of her retirement savings. Others have sent along money, too.

The foundation sponsors story hours at local libraries - Shelley always found time to read to her kids even at the end of a hectic day. The foundation sponsors tea parties, where high school students join senior citizens to talk over tea served in fine china - each night before bed Shelley brewed the perfect cup of loose-leaf tea. The foundation sponsors creative writing contests for schoolchildren - before they had children, Shelley and Donn held fancy Halloween parties where the price of admission was a newly penned short story.

"People walk away from the paper or TV with a name," Marshall said, "but I want people to know more about Shelley."

A second piece of advice from that counselor has also stuck with Marshall since his wife's death: Don't make any major changes in your life for a year.

`It turned on a dime'

Shelley Marshall's office was on the first floor, fifth corridor of the Pentagon's C-wing. A civilian, she worked in the comptroller's office of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The office was about to move to the opposite side of the building, and she had helped design the space.

In three days, she and her co-workers would have started their day nowhere near the spot where American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the building.

On the morning of Sept. 11, the Marshall routine had a twist. Because of the move, Shelley would have to stay late at work; they left their home in Marbury in two cars and met at the Pentagon day care center.

She was there when her husband arrived with the children, who then ran to hug her.

Marshall remembers what she wore - blue chinos, a blue Oxford shirt and a fresh coat of lipstick. "She had just put on some lipstick so she gave me an air kiss," he said.

They parted ways, she to her office, he to his in Arlington, Va., where he is a senior analyst, also with the DIA.

Donn and Shelley Marshall spoke again that morning, a few minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York. He rushed her off the phone, in search of more information about what was unfolding there. About 9:45 his phone rang again. This time it was a co-worker who was at home sick, glued to the television. He said the latest reports were that the Pentagon had been bombed.

Marshall raced back to the day care center. He found his kids right away: "That was the happiest moment of my life. Then it turned on a dime because she should have been there."

On the radio, he heard that a plane had hit near the helipad. He knew she worked close by. It didn't sound good.

He returned to the Pentagon after dropping off Drake and Chandler with his in-laws. He got as close as he could, even hitching a ride in a pickup truck ferrying supplies into the perimeter. "I knew she was in there. She was waiting for me to come get her," he said.

Once inside, he became a stretcher-bearer. "I might have been 250 feet from her," he said.

He watched firefighters being carried out. Suddenly, he backed away: "The kids need at least one parent."

They lived on hope for a while; but on the third night when the phone rang, it brought answers instead of questions. The rescuers had been in her office. There were no more survivors.

Hundreds came to a memorial service in October. Her remains were released in November, and a private burial in her family's plot in Vienna, Va., took place the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

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