This Day in History: Remembering 9/11
Today marks 17 years since the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington D.C. and a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania. During a recent visit to Arlington, Va., Ted Barris met Laurie Laychak, who lost her husband David Laychak to the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the Pentagon.
It’s a cliché, but most people do remember where they were on Sept. 11, 2001. Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, however, those closest to the events of that day worry most that the world will forget the victims. During a recent visit to Arlington, Va., Ted Barris met the widow of a 9/11 victim. Several times a month, she volunteers to receive visitors in a garden near the Pentagon, where, as they say, the world changed.
One day last summer, Laurie Laychak came back to the place where her husband, David, died. She visits the recently inaugurated cantilevered benches, crape myrtle trees and light pools of the Pentagon Memorial several times a month. Yes, it’s a pilgrimage. But she’s also on a mission. This day, the Laychaks’ daughter, Jennifer, has joined Laurie for the drive over. Just before her mother meets a group of travel journalists from Canada, Jennifer makes a painful admission to her mom.
“I can’t remember Dad’s voice,” the 20-year-old said.
Minutes later, her mother leads the Canadian writers to one of the 184 memorial benches made of stainless steel and inlaid with granite. Before she begins her story, Laurie kisses the fingers of her left hand and touches the bench engraved with her husband’s name, David W. Laychak.
“I feel compelled to make sure visitors know these people were not numbers but actual lives,” Laurie Laychak said. She’s now 52.
That Tuesday morning 13 years ago, Laurie Laychak worked as a substitute teacher at an elementary school where they lived in Manassas, Va. The school office contacted her to say there’d been an attack on the Pentagon. With all Washington-area phone systems jammed, she couldn’t reach David by phone; she told their two children – Zachary, nine, and Jennifer, seven – there’d been a fire where their father worked. On Wednesday, she began calling area hospitals. On Thursday, an impromptu support centre told David’s brother and sister, “If you haven’t heard from your loved ones by now, they’re gone.” Searching for the words to explain to her children, Laurie admitted it was the lowest moment of her life.
“I cry over Hallmark cards and Disney movies,” she said. “Not in my wildest dreams would I have thought a plane would fly into the Pentagon.”
David Laychak and Laurie Miller met at the Pentagon in 1984. They’d both come from families with military backgrounds and according to the alumni magazine for Brown University (David’s alma mater), the two were among the youngest working in the office and fell in love. For Laurie, David’s blond hair and blue eyes were attractive enough, but so was his pickup truck; he’d purchased it because friends always needed help moving. “He just had a gentle soul,” she said. They moved to Arizona for a while, but in 2000 David was offered a promotion back at the Pentagon, and they returned to Virginia.
During a family reunion in 2001, Laurie and David Laychak attended a family reunion in the northern U.S. and took a side trip to Ottawa. It was just a few months before David was killed in the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon.
Weekends became family time. David was an American history buff anyway, but having so many historic locations so close by gave the Laychak family ample time to explore battlefields and monuments together. On the road, David entertained his wife and children by singing “God Bless America.” There was a lot of teacher in David Laychak, too; he’d played football at Brown and took to coaching Zachary’s basketball, baseball and soccer teams. “We were always hearing people request him as their coach,” Laurie said. “He was just so patient.”
Son Zachary had no patience with his father’s death. Just disbelief. Why would someone do this to his dad? How could someone as strong as his dad be gone? On the 10th anniversary of 9-11, he told American Forces Press (AFP) that on the night of Sept. 11, he’d gone for a sleepover at a neighbour’s house. He woke up at 6 a.m. on Sept. 12, saw his father’s parked car in the driveway and felt relief. He didn’t realize that a friend had driven his dad’s car home. Denial turned to anger. Zach wore a bracelet with his father’s name engraved on it and never took it off. He became a fan of America’s war against terror, and even years later “felt pure joy” when Osama bin Laden was killed. Zachary has nearly completed a degree in political science and communications and is considering law school.
When the anniversary ceremonies came along, Laurie gave her children the option of attending. Both did initially. Laurie said her daughter, Jennifer – seven at the time of David’s death – responded differently from Zach. At first, she cried a lot and slept with her mom. Then she took to writing down her thoughts. “Mommy, you should write a journal,” she told her mom. “You can copy mine.” Today, Jennifer Laychak studies psychology and neurosciences at university.
“To this day,” Laurie Laychak said, “it’s still hard for them both.”