Victoria Mihalek, 5, of Alexandria, Va., visits the Pentagon… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
ARLINGTON, Va. — — The day after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, dozens of people flocked to the Pentagon Memorial to honor loved ones, neighbors and perfect strangers who died in the Pentagon attack nearly 10 years ago.
They bore flowers and tiny flags and carried themselves, for the most part, like visitors to a cemetery. In contrast to more raucous gatherings in New York and at the White House, there were no whoops or cheers here on two pebble-covered acres on the Pentagon's south side. Mourners left bouquets in pools of water trickling beneath 184 stone benches, each engraved with the name of someone killed when a hijacked plane crashed into the massive building.
"We had to do something," said Gary Cotton, 61, a retired Library of Congress darkroom technician from Washington. "That's kind of like what it boils down to. You can't just watch television."
Cotton and his wife, Nancy, set a bouquet of pink carnations and The Washington Post atop the bench engraved with the name of a close friend, Sheila Hein of College Park, and snapped a photo. It was if they were bringing the news to the late Navy photographer. The headline read: "Justice has been done." Cotton — who choked up recalling that immediately after the attack, he'd tried to reassure Hein's domestic partner that she'd turn up alive — could not have agreed more.
"This individual, he caused so many problems for so many people for no reason I could really see," he said.
Valerie Mihalek of Alexandria, Va., coordinated the construction of a Sept. 11 memorial garden in Pennsylvania, where she recently lived, and became close to the widows of two pilots killed in the attacks, one at the World Trade Center and one in Pennsylvania. She did not know anyone killed at the Pentagon, but she wanted to be there Monday just the same.
She and her 5-year-old daughter, Victoria, both dressed in red, white and blue, walked from bench to bench, giving the engraved names on the ends an affectionate pat with their just-kissed hands.
"Is she in heaven?" the little girl asked at one woman's bench. Her mother assured her she was.
Don Redd of Clifton, Va., a member of the Army Special Forces, stopped by with his four young children and other family after a ceremony inside the Pentagon to mark his promotion to lieutenant colonel.
"He's been to Iraq four times, so this is a personal thing to me," said his wife, Sara Redd, 36. "We felt like today is a very appropriate day to be here. … We were pretty happy about the news."
Many of those drawn to the memorial had no personal connection to the victims. Tour groups rejiggered their itineraries to swing by the site and soak up what for many felt like a historic moment for the country and, perhaps, the Obama presidency. For them, the mood was lighter, though still respectful of the lives lost.
"Yes we can!" declared Mary Engle, 56, of Poolesville, a few steps before she entered the memorial grounds.
A group of eighth-graders from Saint Francis Xavier Preparatory School in Hyannis, Mass., added a visit to the memorial on the last day of their Washington field trip.
"It wasn't exactly on our itinerary," said Maureen Philbin-Crockett, a U.S. history teacher and chaperone on the trip. "I think it's important for them to see."
Jennifer and Wayne Smith, on vacation from Davenport, Fla., decided to make the memorial their first stop in Washington. She recalled how worried she'd been on Sept. 11 for her brother, a pilot who flew for United Air Lines at the time. After many frantic phone calls, she found out he was golfing, on his day off.
Karl Schuettler, a 21-year-old junior at Georgetown University from Duluth, Minn., sat quietly on one of the benches, tearing up and writing in a journal. He was in sixth grade on Sept. 11, 2001. He did not want to join the youthful celebrations across town.
"For me, this was a more meaningful thing to do than to go to the White House, which a lot of my friends did," he said.
Bob and Kathy Beaird, on a weeklong trip from Houston, had been at the Newseum the day before, taking in an exhibit on Sept. 11 news coverage.
"Here we were, watching video of 9-11 yesterday and kind of reliving that," Bob Beaird said. "That was on our minds and then we were watching TV, 'Special announcement from the president.' We figured it was about Libya."
When the news turned out to be about bin Laden, there was no doubt that they'd visit the memorial. The collection of stone benches reminded the Beairds, natives of Norman, Okla., of the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, which has a chair for each victim.
"Hate," Bob Beaird said, shaking his head.