By BEN SWARTZ
WASHINGTON (Sept. 10, 2008)—It's taken six years, but the site of the Pentagon's 9/11 tragedy has been turned into a place of reflection and remembrance that will open to the public Thursday.
On Sept. 11, 2001, two terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 and flew into the Pentagon's west wall, killing all 59 passengers and 125 people in the building.
"It's a very impressive memorial," said Christine Fisher of Potomac, whose husband Gerald P. "Geep" Fisher was killed in the attack. Victim families were allowed to view the memorial before it opened to the public.
"It was something that wasn't so overwhelming or out of character. I felt comfortable there, even considering what happened."
The memorial consists of 184 memorial benches, one bench for each individual killed in the attack. The benches sit on a 2-acre park outside the west wall that aligns directly with the plane's path.
The benches are arranged in a timeline reflecting the ages, from 3 to 71, of the people who lost their lives. Each bench is inscribed with the name of the deceased and is suspended over a small pool of water.
"We wanted to make sure there was a special place for each individual," said Julie Beckman, who designed the memorial along with Keith Kaseman, both of KBAS of Philadelphia.
The project began in 2002 when 1,200 memorial designs were submitted to an 11-member panel. After advancing to the final competition, Beckman and Kaseman's design was unanimously selected as the Pentagon's memorial.
"I've been here to see this project develop through different stages," said Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Carl Maka. "And personally it really means something to be able to be here for the opening as well. I think it's a start in healing for everyone."
Viewing the memorial privately was a reflective experience for Fisher.
"It's almost like the calm before the storm, the empty theatre before the performance," said Fisher. "I will be there on the 11th and it will be a whole different situation when you're surrounded by thousands of people and dignitaries."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates will speak at the dedication ceremony Thursday. The families of more than 130 of the victims are expected to attend, said Maka.
"I've healed a lot, so I know I can take going there," said Rebecca Lightbourne, of Capitol Heights, who lost her daughter Samantha Lightbourne-Allen, 36. "I think I'll feel the presence of Samantha. I guess because she was gone so suddenly the reality of her death hasn't hit the family yet."
Although the prospect of going to see the memorial is painful, both Lightbourne and Fisher said visiting the memorial is integral to healing.
"I always try to honor the day," said Fisher. "But this year will be extra special because of the memorial and because of the significance. It's going to be a little bit more closure after all the planning and the execution of this. I think it will sort of move me along a little more into the future."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.