Families await news outside Pentagon

ARLINGTON — Many who gathered near the Pentagon early Wednesday said they came to make sure the horror they saw on television the last 24 hours was real.

Some took pictures of the gaping hole in the building. A U.S. flag waved on top of the building amid a hazy cloud of smoke. One woman held her own American flag in solitary silence.

“To just see it for yourself,” is why Patty Smith-Roberts said she came to the grassy area hundreds of yards from the building. “To make it seem real.”

The Edwards family of Woodbridge was among the hundreds gathered who needed no reality check.

Mickey Edwards was on the phone with his wife, Penny, when he heard a thud and the walls of his Pentagon office started to shake around him.

“I have to get off the phone,” the 42-year-old man told his wife.

Mickey, who works for the Air and Space Division of the Air Force on the opposite side of where the plane struck, evacuated within minutes.

Yet, Penny was left wondering for hours if her husband was all right.

“It was the most horrifying time of my life,” she said as she wrapped her arms around her young daughter, Deziree, and a lone tear trickled from her eye.

When he finally came home, they hugged for what seemed like forever, Penny said.

Wednesday morning, Mickey decided against returning to work like some colleagues. Instead, he and Penny brought their three young children to see the destruction of the nation’s military nerve center.

The Edwards family was one of the lucky ones.

Several families waited at the nearby Sheraton Hotel in Crystal City, clinging to the hope that their missing relatives were still alive.

“It’s been 24 hours and we have not heard anything from her,” said John Lawson, whose sister Cecilia from Oxon Hill, Md., was on her first day of a new job at the Pentagon. “And she was responsible; she would have called.”

Lawson, from Washington, D.C., and two of his five sisters talked to reporters outside the hotel where the Department of Defense offered counseling from more than 30 members of clergy and psychologists.

By early afternoon, Lawson, his sisters and other family members had received no official word.

Lawson said he could not bear to see the Pentagon and stopped watching television after hearing early morning reports that there were no survivors left.

He buried his head in his hands while his sisters wept openly next to him.

Yet, the shaken family said their voices needed to be heard.

“We cannot run as a nation,” said Valerie Walls, as she held snapshots of her 34-year-old “baby sister” and her beloved black Labrador.

They called for retribution, a sentiment shared by many around the Pentagon the morning after.

“If [terrorist Osama] bin Laden had anything to do with it, I say we turn Afghanistan into a parking lot,” Lawson said.

While the grave reality of this family’s situation had already hit, others prayed for a miracle.

Rennea Butler stood in the hotel lobby and said she believed her twin sister, Samantha Lightbourn-Allen, was still alive.

“I don’t feel like her life is in danger,” said the Sterling woman, who pointed to where her sister from Prince George’s County, Md., worked on a map of the Pentagon. “We’re hoping worst-case scenario is she is trapped.”

While her sister’s 12- and 16-year-old children played innocently around the hotel, Butler said it has been an emotional roller coaster for her and her mother.

Knowing this, many without a direct connection to the tragedy searched for ways to help.

Joey Rubin of Centreville was one of the first to stand on the grassy slope next to a Citgo gas station that had been converted into a media headquarters. With reporters milling around, Rubin stood by herself and held an American flag.

“I can’t help put out the fire, but I can show support,” said Rubin. “I think seeing a flag will help people.”

As Smith-Roberts of Alexandria recalled how military planes flying over her house startled her Tuesday, people around her began to scurry.

“Move back, there’s an inbound plane,” came shouts from a nearby Arlington police car around 11 a.m.

A group of rescue units closer to the Pentagon were seen running out from under make-shift tents.

After a chilling minute, the plane was determined “friendly” and order was restored.

People whose faces had turned to stone with shock slowly relaxed. But the reality of Tuesday’s attacks was clearly sinking in.

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