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Pentagon relatives clinging to hope


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 15, 2001

CRYSTAL CITY, Va. -- There were still a few families holding out hope Friday of finding their loved ones in the rubble of the Pentagon.

"Miracles do happen," one distraught man said during a military briefing for family members at an area hotel.

The task of gently, but firmly, leading families of the estimated 126 victims toward reality fell to a stooped, gray-haired combat officer and Vietnam veteran, Army Lt. Gen. John Van Alstyne.

"I'm here to tell you the truth," Van Alstyne said, according to people who were in the room for one of his twice-daily private briefings for family members. "Don't ask me a question you don't want an answer to."

"He won't spin it. He won't paint a flowery picture," said Navy Lt. David Gai, a military spokesman. "But he speaks from the heart. It helps them confront their emotions and begin the process of closure."

That process was on vivid display Friday as about 350 people belonging to 60 of the families streamed out of the Sheraton Hotel in this Washington suburb. Someone had set off the hotel alarm, and suddenly there was uproar.

Police cars with screaming sirens materialized to secure the streets. A fire truck arrived. An ambulance followed. But the family members shuffled across the street with nary a glance.

Some clutched tissue boxes. Most looked numb. A few were crying, and one woman was hysterical.

"Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus!" the woman wailed. She was on her back, being borne out of the building by four men who held her as they would a coffin. "Jesus, take care of me!" she cried.

It was the kind of panicked evacuation scene that has played out so frequently in Washington since Tuesday's terrorist attacks.

Another false alarm.

Back inside the hotel, family members met individually with grief and religious counselors, while Pentagon officials tried to dispel misinformation, such as early reports that casualties reached 800 or that the military has already made positive identification of a large number of bodies.

Most of the family members avoided reporters; they had asked military officials to shield them from the press.

A family stood in the lobby holding hands in a circle, heads bowed in prayer while an infant fussed. Volunteers circulated with "therapy dogs" on leashes, and family members stroked the animals.

Others sat in the lounge, eating pieces of a cake decorated as an American flag that a woman and her young child had dropped off, one of the many gifts of food and flowers that had arrived from the community.

Ione Perry, 65, had watched smoke billowing from the Pentagon on Tuesday morning from the window of her high-rise apartment building. By Thursday, the retired educator was a volunteer at the hotel, helping just-arrived family members get oriented.

She showed them the second floor, where the military had set up briefing rooms, phone banks and computer rooms to track the 100 calls an hour that were coming in from friends and distant relatives of the missing.

Friday morning, Perry watched as hotel custodians climbed a tall ladder and hung an American flag from the ceiling of the lobby.

"There's still families that have hope, yet we can tell that deep in their souls they fear the worst," Perry said.

"You just try to hold them. I think they just need someone to listen to them. I surely don't have any answers. I don't guess any of us do."

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