By Donna Miles, AFPSAugust 21, 2008
WASHINGTON - When Jim Laychak looks out over the 184 benches that serve as the centerpiece for the new Pentagon Memorial, he sees life. Rays of early-afternoon sunlight reflect on pools beneath each bench, sending ripples of light dancing across the stainless-steel benches.
"I look at it as these guys talking to us," Laychak said, referring to the 184 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon honored at the memorial. "It's them coming back and saying, 'We appreciate what you have done. We appreciate that you will never forget,'" he said.
Laychak has worked tirelessly to keep alive the memory of 125 Servicemembers and civilian workers at the Pentagon and 59 passengers and crew aboard American Airlines Flight 77 killed in the attack. As president of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, he has been the public face to a project he said captured broad, collaborative support.
Exactly four weeks before the memorial's official dedication, Laychak said today that he never doubted the dream of creating a memorial to those killed in the attack would come to fruition. "I didn't know the path we would take to get here, but I really believed that we would get here," he said. "I knew this day would come."
Even the big-ticket price attached to the project -- $22 million for construction, plus $10 million for an endowment fund, all in private funds -- didn't faze Laychak. "I knew the money would come because I knew that we were doing God's work," he said. "It was just a matter of sticking with it and focusing on the right things."
Laychak expressed appreciation to those who donated to the cause, particularly the companies that stepped forward and provided the biggest contributions. "When we went to them and asked for support, it wasn't, 'Let me think about it.' It was 'What do you need' How much can I give''"
But beyond contributors, Laychak said the memorial represents a collaboration by a large group of other people, as well: Pentagon officials, the design and construction team, family members and volunteer fundraisers, all working toward the same goal. "It was everybody believing in that goal and working together," he said. "This isn't an individual achievement. It's what we have accomplished as a team."
The project is slated for completion Aug. 31, but Chris Hertzler, senior project manager, said it's two to three weeks ahead of schedule. "We're working on the final touch-up, fixing little nicks and scratches and dings," he said. "We're really pretty much done now."
Everyone who has been involved in the effort feels an emotional attachment to it and pride in how it's evolved, Hertzler said. "From the families all the way to the guys out here swinging a hammer, everyone was behind each other, helping each other out," he said.
John Foulkes, quality control manager for the project, walked around the 1.9-acre site with a checklist earlier today, ensuring last-minute details weren't overlooked. A landscaping team spread mulch around shrubbery, an electrician double-checked lighting, and other workers checked the filters in each reflecting pond.
Remembering back to the groundbreaking in June 2006, Foulkes said he's astounded to see the striking memorial that has risen from an empty field. "It's absolutely amazing, absolutely stunning, especially when you see it at night," he said.
For Foulkes, who was working on a construction project at the end of the runway at Dulles International Airport when Flight 77 took off, completion of the Pentagon Memorial brings a sense of closure.
Like Laychak, he said he feels something deep down inside when his eyes fall on the 184 benches. "From a distance, they all look alike, but close up, you can see that every one is different, just like people," he said. "It might be something as simple as the way a stone sits in it, but each one is unique."
Foulkes, too, sees that mysterious ripple that dances through the benches as the sun reflects on the water below. "It looks like fire," he said.
Laychak said he hopes visitors to the Pentagon Memorial will think beyond the flames that poured from the building when the jetliner slammed into it during the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, he said, he wants them to honor those who died at the site -- sharing stories about them and celebrating their lives. "Life can turn in an instant, so we need to celebrate it," he said.
Laychak said he hopes people who visit the site remember how Americans set aside their differences and united after the 9-11 attacks. "It's about remembering how we all felt as a country and how we came together, and it's remembering that we are more alike than we are different in this world," he said. "So why don't we figure out how to work together as opposed to focusing on the differences'"
The memorial dedication is slated for Sept. 11, and will open to the public that evening. As many as 2 million people are expected to visit the site within a year, officials said.