WASHINGTON — Twenty years ago, terrorists hijacked four flights and launched a series of attacks that changed all of America.
At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center's north tower in New York, followed by a second attack on the south tower by Flight 175 at 9:03 a.m. The result of the crash killed everyone on both flights and hundreds of others working in the two buildings.
Diane Murtha, a Marine Corps spouse, recalled watching the horrific events unfold from her home in Stuttgart, Germany. Time stood still as she found solace in her family and sought to provide support as a member of the local Black Forest Quilt Guild.
Later at 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, killing 64 people on board and another 125 on the ground, proving that the symbol of American defense was not immune from attack.
Then Lt. Col. Franklin Childress recalled hearing the explosion from his small apartment, about a mile away from the Pentagon. He later found out that some of his coworkers, including Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Maude, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel (G-1), were killed in the attack.
"I was waiting for my household goods to be delivered that day," Childress said. "Initially, the transportation clerk dropped the ball and had to reschedule and only had September 10th or 11th available. By the grace of God, I decided to pick the 11th."
News of the attacks spread quickly, leading to a final and heroic standoff between the passengers and hijackers of Flight 93. After overtaking the cockpit, the plane crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 10:03 a.m. — close to 20 flight minutes away from the National Capital Region.
"In the beginning, nobody knew where it was coming from," Murtha said. "We didn't know if there was going to be more attacks or if the kids were going to keep going to school."
Over the next month, Murtha helped take care of her two boys while her husband worked tirelessly to support post operations during Force Protection Condition Delta.
"My husband was in the middle of a joint exercise [on 9/11]," Murtha added. "He told me that they were all in the situation room, but all the TVs were on. They knew it was no longer an exercise -- it was the real thing."
National 9/11 memorials in New York, Pennsylvania, and outside the Pentagon have since been built to honor the sacrifice and heroic actions by victims and first responders, and the countless number of impacted families and loved ones.
While numerous people visit the 9/11 memorials each year, a far less amount gain access to the Pentagon to view a unique tribute — a series of 40 commemorative quilts donated by children, civilians, churches, companies, and artists.
Among the Pentagon Quilts display is "The Stars of Liberty Quilt," previously donated by the Black Forest Quilt Guild, a group Murtha and more than 70 German and Americans participated in while overseas.
Quilts for support
The Stars of Liberty Quilt showcases five equivalent stars in the middle and incorporates various shades of red, white, blue, and gold surrounded by a patriotic outer border.
"The Pentagon contacted us as a guild and asked if we could make donations," Murtha recalled. "The intent was for those quilts to go to families who were affected."
Murtha said that the organization opted to contribute as a group as members donated their time and materials to support the noble cause. It took close to three weeks to assemble the piece fully and send it to the Pentagon. The group also included a Black Forest Quilt Guild tag on the backing.
Pentagon officials later contacted the guild and explained their desire to hang its quilt alongside other sewn pieces comprised of kid's drawings, pockets filled with handwritten prayers and letters, and textile-printed photos of the Pentagon victims.
"I felt like I was doing one small thing that I could do for a family affected by this at the Pentagon," Murtha said as tears welled up in her eyes. "I equate a quilt with a hug. If I can't be there to hug you, I can send it through the love of a quilt I made."
Sharing their stories
Shortly after Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, Childress donned his uniform and ran toward the building only to be stopped by FBI agents cordoning off the area to preserve the scene and expedite rescue efforts.
"I said, 'I want to do something — help with stretchers,'" Childress said, but officials quickly told him to return home. "Meanwhile, my wife was panicking because she didn't know if I was at the Pentagon and all the phones were jammed. Personnel from my office were also trying to get ahold of me to find out if I was in the Pentagon."
It took several hours for Childress to contact his wife and family and almost a full day to reach someone in his duty section.
"My office was on the D-ring of the fourth corridor, and it was directly above ground zero from where the plane hit," Childress explained. "The plane went underneath my area and exploded about halfway through the Army deputy chief of staff for personnel office."
In total, 29 people working in his office and for the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, or ASA M&RA , were all killed, he said.
"I actually had survivor's guilt. Why was I spared and everybody else was killed?" Childress asked. "All the people that I met — they were gone."
Childress was originally assigned to his office as a marketing officer but transitioned over as the public affairs officer for Army G-1, he said. He had the monumental task of sharing the stories about 9/11 victims, survivors, responders, and families.
Childress later designed a joint G-1 and ASA M&RA memorial in front of the office, just one floor up from the Pentagon Quilts memorial. The rear of the display houses a piece of sandstone wall recovered after the attack. A memorial plaque rests in the middle, surrounded by photos of the 29 victims.
Part of the plaque reads, "These 29 friends, coworkers, and loved ones paid the ultimate price for their Army and nation. We will forever mourn their loss and celebrate their lives. Our memories of their devotion and sacrifice will remain with us always as we, the survivors, soldier on for this great Army and nation."
Observers can see a photo of then Maj. Kip P. Taylor, a military aide and former Delta Force operator, posthumously promoted to lieutenant colonel, Childress said. Taylor left behind a wife, Nancy, who was over eight months pregnant with their second son. Not soon after giving birth, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and lived for close to three years before giving her last breath.
"The kids were adopted by a couple that happened to be my neighbors while stationed in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas," he said. "Nancy was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery with her husband and the others killed that day."
Spc. Chin Sun Pak Wells was another person memorialized in the display, he added. She looked out the window while talking to her boyfriend on her cellphone and saw the plane coming in.
"She said, 'Oh my god, there's a plane coming,' and then the phone went dead," Childress said, as he recalled information he collected leading up to her death.
The joint memorial remembers the victims; however, the true impact of 9/11 extends beyond the many who died, Childress added. Through all the chaos, countless heroic responders stepped up to aid rescue and recovery efforts.
Childress recalled one Soldier's story, Staff Sgt. Christopher Braman, a culinary specialist working in the Pentagon that day. After the plane struck the building, he decided to run back in and later found a lady who couldn't speak from all the lingering smoke in the area.
"She was clapping and hoping somebody would come. This Soldier reached out through the smoke and saved her life," Childress said. "He now has permanent lung damage from the smoke inhalation."
Another example of heroism involves now-Texas Sen. Brian Birdwell, a former lieutenant colonel, Childress said.
Birdwell was caught in the flames after Flight 77 exploded, which melted his uniform to parts of his body. After being helped out of the Pentagon, heroes like former Air Force Col. Rob Maness and others triaged his injuries and provided support.
"They said, 'He is going to die if he doesn't get to a burn center. So somebody put him in their [Ford] Explorer and drove over the 14th Street Bridge against traffic and on the sidewalk just to get him there in time to save his life," Childress said.
It has been 20 years since the events of 9/11. As the nation and military reflect on all the stories, Childress feels it is an opportunity to unify as a country once again.
"When I see the memorial [or the quilts], it reminds me of all the people who were here, and all the people who served in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past 20 years," he said. "I think there is a lot to be proud of, and I am thankful for people who went over to serve their country.
“I want everyone to remember not only those killed on 9/11, but all those who have served since."