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Life goes on, but memories remain fresh for 9/11 survivors 10 years later

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2011

When the constant rewind of the airplanes slamming into buildings, fireballs and faces stricken with grief became overwhelming, most of the world could at least turn off the TV or put down a newspaper. But for those directly affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, those images remain as constant and vivid as the warm, sunny day on which they occurred.

Over the past 10 years, and most recently last month, The Washington Times has been invited into the homes and the lives of five such people connected to the attack on the Pentagon.

An ordinary life

As the sun set across central Pennsylvania one a recent August evening, Daniel C. Pfeilstucker Jr. watched his two youngest children scramble among the waist-high tomato plants in his garden.

It's an ordinary scene for many people, but for Mr. Pfeilstucker, it's another reminder of what might not have been had he died when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:40 a.m.

"It's always in the back of my mind," he said. "It could have been me. It could have been the alternative."

Seconds before the attack, Mr. Pfeilstucker, who was working for a mechanical contracting company, stepped off a second-floor elevator about 40 feet from where the jet hit. The force blew Mr. Pfeilstucker down the hall and into a small telephone closet.

"It got scary quiet," he recalled. "Then people started screaming for help. I realized I was never going to see my child [Tori] again. It was just survival instinct that kicked in."

Mr. Pfeilstucker estimates that it took him 15 minutes to fight his way out of the closet and run down stairs to get out of the burning building, a feat he credits to the guiding spirit of a young relative who died in an accident two months earlier.

Today, Mr. Pfeilstucker, 39, along with wife Jessica, 38, daughter Tori, 11, daughter Haley, 8, and 5-year-old son Ben live in Duncansville, Pa., having moved from suburban Maryland seven years ago to escape the crowded city, the constant reminders of that day and for an opportunity to spend more time boating, camping and grilling in their backyard fire pit.

Memories such as the smell of jet fuel and the "what-if" scenarios aren't easy to ignore, but Mr. Pfeilstucker said talking about them helps.

Asked what he will do for the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Mr. Pfeilstucker said he was asked by a friend at work to speak at his church.

A new tattoo on Mr. Pfeilstucker's left bicep reminds him of the loss and life on that day.

"I'm glad I did it," he said of the tattoo, a combination of a five-sided American flag overlaid by a 9-shaped gash and an 11 created by silhouettes of the World Trade Center towers.

"I'm afraid not much has changed" besides the tattoo, Mrs. Pfeilstucker said. "But that's the way we like it."

Learning to live, love again

If retired school principal Beatriz "Pat" Hymel Lipinski has a free minute in her day, it's hard to find.

Between early-morning workouts, cooking and checking out the local theater scene, the 62-year-old Mathews, Va., resident enjoys spending time with her two granddaughters.

"I'm probably just as busy, if not busier, than I was before," said Mrs. Lipinski, whose husband, Lt. Col. Robert J. Hymel, a retired Air Force pilot, died in the attack on the Pentagon.

"I'm doing stuff that I didn't do before, things that I need to do as I get older," she said. "I need to keep stimulating my brain. When Robert died, a part of my brain died. I just didn't want to learn anymore."

Hymel was working at the Pentagon as a management analyst and would have been 65 this summer.

He cheated death once, Mrs. Lipinski said, when he survived a plane crash during the Vietnam War.

"I always felt God gave him back to me for 29 more years," she said.

Still, Mrs. Lipinski said she needed time to get to that place of acceptance.

"It took awhile," she said. "I didn't have time for counseling. I was walking around depressed. I denied it, but about a year and a half later, my body snapped out of it."

Two years later, her heart also would find healing in the form of Ed Lipinski, a retired Army colonel and widower whom she married.

She has avoided most of the Sept. 11 memorials, but Hymel's sister will be flying in this year so the family can spend the weekend together.

Mrs. Lipinski plans on attending the Pentagon's ceremony, then she and her husband will lay flowers at the Arlington National Cemetery graves of their respective loved ones.

The images from that day remain vivid, Mrs. Lipinski said. She can remember the plane coming right by the windows of Hoffman-Boston Elementary School in Arlington where she worked and the way her teachers reacted.

"Coming home and not finding [Bob] home, having to go through that ordeal," Mrs. Lipinski said. "You can't have that hold you back. You have to keep going."

A reluctant hero making the most of misfortune

Inside George E. Clodfelter III's home office sits a neatly folded U.S. flag with names of Sept. 11 victims embroidered along the edges.

The 55-year-old former Pentagon Force Protection Agency officer bought the flag online in 2002 and flies it through the month of September. He also recently switched his computer screensaver to a photograph of the Pentagon burning on the nightof Sept. 11.

"This time of year I get pretty emotional," he said in August. "I start running that tape again."

Had more photographs of Mr. Clodfelter been taken that day than the one of him directing Pentagon onlookers in his bloodstained uniform, they likely would have shown him charging in and out of the building to rescue dozens of people.

"I would have done it even if I wasn't a police officer," he said. "I would have tried to do something. I just did what I had to do."

Looking out to his front yard from his patio, Mr. Clodfelter lights one of the many cigarettes he will smoke throughout the afternoon.

In 2002, he and his wife of 37 years, Linda, moved from Northern Virginia to Caroline County, Va., about 70 miles south of Washington.

"After the dust started to settle, I started thinking about that catastrophic day, and I decided this was going to be an ongoing situation in this country," he said. "I didn't want my wife to get caught up in it."

The two now live in a modest new home in a small town where it's easy to find a familiar face.

Mr. Clodfelter was working as a police officer at Fort A.P. Hill until he was temporarily assigned a desk officer position with fire control. In May, he was issued the military equivalent of a pink slip, which he is contesting and hopes to have straightened out by October.

As he waits for the decision, Mr. Clodfelter spends his time catching up with family, acting as mediator for his cats that bound around the house and cooking up batches of homemade tomato sauce.

He also monitors the news and is a fan of the History and Discovery channels, which are increasingly airing 9/11 stories. Mr. Clodfelter has no problem with that, saying they keep Americans' "feet on the ground and say this is what happened to us."

A survivor's burden

Louise Rogers wears the pain of a nation on her skin.

A patchwork of flesh tones pattern her body, the skin taut in certain spots like her knuckles, where healing is difficult.

"My scars are still pretty strong," she said. "They will take over pretty quickly."

Ms. Rogers was standing at a fax machine when the plane hit the Pentagon. It was her second day on the job as an accountant for the budget office of the Department of the Army.

"Some people ask [what happened] and 'Do you mind?' " Ms. Rogers said. "I'll say no, I'll tell you. I've gotten to be very open about it."

Before Ms. Rogers could escape, she sustained serious burns to 70 percent of her body. She spent years in grueling rehabilitation and lost her ears and fingers, despite dozens of surgeries.

In 2006, her 35-year marriage officially ended. The next year, she returned to upstate New York where she had worked at an Air Force base in the late 1980s.

"The only thing that drew me back here was my daughter and grandkids," Ms. Rogers said.

Her days are spent seeing doctors, running errands in a car fitted with a prosthetic device and pitching in for family, which includes a new great-granddaughter.

Ms. Rogers has two home health aides to help her throughout the week, but the past 10 years have taught her to be more independent, as 20 pairs of kitchen tongs spread throughout her house to help her grab things demonstrate.

"I use a Kindle, an iPhone, an iPad," she said. "I just want a better life for myself."

Though Ms. Rogers is in a different place from where she was 10 years ago, she thinks improvements still can be made.

"I've always been kind of a 'we' person, not an 'I' person," she said. "I could do more. I try to travel, try to do things I couldn't do before."

Ms. Rogers and her mother, Ardis, took a second trip to Alaska in July. She will be in Hawaii with her son for Thanksgiving.

Ms. Rogers hadn't planned on attending the 10th anniversary ceremony, but after talking with several people who said they were going, she decided to go as well.

"It's a good opportunity to get together with friends and acquaintances of that time period," she said. "It's kind of like going home."

Moving on, with respect

The 184 benches of the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial are angled directly toward the spot where Flight 77 hit the building, just below Robert Hogue's fourth-floor office.

He is straight with strangers who ask about the details of that day.

"The plane hit under the window," he said. "We ran for our lives. I'm not going to lie about it and I'm not going to hide. But then I've got to deal with the 'What was it like?' That's easy to deflect: It was terrible."

His office was rebuilt with shelves along the south wall that today hold books, photographs and mementos. On the walls hang John William Waterhouse paintings, and in an adjoining meeting room are two enlarged color prints of the Pentagon shortly after the attack.

When the Springfield resident and father of two is sitting at his desk, the organized rows of memorial benches are behind him and that's also where he would like to keep Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's time for us to start thinking about getting on with life respectfully of the people who have died, respectfully of the people who are disabled," he said.

The death this May of Osama bin Laden is another part of that healing process, despite its ugliness, said Mr. Hogue, a counsel for the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Mr. Hogue warned that a lot of people will never forget Sept. 11, but they have to find ways to not remain "stuck in first gear on Sept. 12."

Since 2001, Mr. Hogue has coached sports teams for children Ryan and Samantha — now in college. He also has been "that 6-foot-2, 200-pound referee you don't want to yell at on the basketball court," he said.

To burn off steam from long days at the Pentagon, Mr. Hogue, 52, goes to the gym or hits the road on his Road King Classic 100th Anniversary Edition Harley-Davidson.

"I think we're trying to lead normal lives," he said.

Asked what his plans are for the 10th anniversary, Mr. Hogue said he likely will go to church because Sept. 11 falls on a Sunday. He also will be spending time with his wife, Cheryle, and family.

"I really would like to get on with my life and in a respectful way live with what happened to me," he said. "I hope the country is ready to do that as well."

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