Marya Hage, our organization’s founder, is a Red Cross Volunteer. She serves regularly as a Mental Health Specialist, throughout the United States, following disasters, including hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes. In September, following the September 11th terrorist attack on New York and Washington, she was called to serve at the Pentagon, and was there from September 16th to September 29th.
The following are Marya Hage’s reflections on her experience:
Serving at the Pentagon
By Marya Hage
I was one of the privileged few. After the horrible events of September 11th in New York and Washington, everyone wanted to know what to do, how they could help. I was fortunate in that I was able to act. I have been a Red Cross volunteer in Disaster Services for almost ten years, helping during floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and on a hot line for the bombing in Oklahoma City. My job is to provide mental health services to victims and Red Cross workers as well. So I had the privilege of going to serve at the Pentagon as soon as air travel was available. I worked there for two weeks, going to my job area at midnight every night.
The scene at night was surreal. None of the pictures in the media captured it. It was an assault on the senses. Huge lights were illuminating the massive black hole where the plane crashed through the floors into the basement. The surrounding area was crushed and twisted metal and concrete, and the sides of the building were blackened. There were also the sounds of generators constantly running, trucks beeping as they backed up to be filled with rubble, and other vehicles moving constantly. The air was permeated with the acrid smell of diesel fuel. Everywhere the air was filled fine dust and smoke. It covered our bodies with a light film.
There were five perimeters around the site. Special badges were needed to enter each area. Access to each was increasingly restricted. The majority of workers could get in as far as the third circle. A smaller number of us had special badges to enter the fourth area. Each of the perimeters were closely guarded, with the fifth area a closely guarded crime scene, controlled by the FBI.
I spent the nights with the variety of workers on site. These included fire fighters and police from many jurisdictions, search and rescue crews, FBI, ATF, construction workers, and many military personnel. I spent much time at the “Mortuary Tent” where I worked with the 54th Quartermaster Corps form Fort Lee, Virginia. Their assignment was to recover bodies.
When remains were found, a signal was given and a white refrigerator truck went into the fifth area. The assigned soldiers from the 54th Corps followed. They were completely covered in white plastic suits, heavy rubber boots and breathing masks. When the bodies were removed, they were taken to a morgue at Dover Air Base where DNA was used to identify who had been found. When anyone left the fifth area they had to go through extensive decontamination procedures.
The soldiers were an amazing group of young people. I was so honored to be with them. The families of those killed could be reassured if they knew of the dedication, reverence, and commitment of these young soldiers as they performed their difficult task. While waiting, they were generally quiet. There was no “gallows humor” that people sometimes use to alleviate the stress in difficult situations. At times they wanted to talk. It was particularly troubling when the soldiers found personal items, such as a wallet, pictures of loved ones, or other personal mementos. They also had concerns about their future, wondering whether they would be deployed to the Middle East soon.
Another special group were the military Chaplains. They also were there to offer support for the workers on site. On occasion when bodies were found, one would “suit up” in the white plastic suit, boots, and mask, and go in to pray for the victim. They also conducted well attended services at the chapel for the workers. It was difficult for several to leave their parish duties for such a troubling assignment.
There were American flags everywhere, on top of hats, large ones on the ATVs fluttering as they drove by, and the huge one on the Pentagon itself. There were also the makeshift memorials. The cards and flowers sent were really appreciated by the workers. They were read and treasured. It was truly heartening to see the resurgence of patriotism all over Washington.
There was a second resurgence as well, that of seeking God’s help in understanding, accepting, and coping with this tragedy. One Navy Chaplain suggested we find comfort in the 27th Psalm which begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” I am thankful that I had the opportunity to participate at the Pentagon. The experience was a blessing for me.