By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 25, 2008 - Fifteen minutes before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack at the Pentagon, two sisters, both Defense Department employees, sat in the building's five-sided center courtyard to talk about their family's newest development. "We discussed her daughter's first day in kindergarten," said Kathy Dillaber, recalling the conversation with her "baby sister," 41-year-old Patricia Mickley.
As they spoke, the sisters watched an airplane streak above the open-air courtyard, and their discussion shifted to early reports that morning about a pair of planes crashing in New York City.
About 10 minutes later they walked together toward their offices, Dillaber to her desk in the Department of the Army, Mickley to her job at the Defense Intelligence Agency on the opposite corner of the Pentagon wedge.
Dillaber, who carried with her a sense of foreboding, had told her sister to keep her purse with her in case the Pentagon needed be evacuated. Then, at 9:43 a.m., the sense of foreboding became reality.
"I heard a very loud sound," Dillaber said, recalling her confusion as the crash threw her to the floor.
Only later did the distraught Dillaber learn the source of the sound: the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 barreling into the Pentagon. The attack would claim the lives of 184 people. Dillaber's sister was one of the victims.
As she talked with reporters last week on the grounds of the Pentagon Memorial -- a two-acre park near the point of impact with an illuminated bench and lighted reflecting pool dedicated to each victim -- Dillaber reached into her purse and fished out a picture showing the beaming face of her sister.
"That's Patty," she said, holding the small rectangular photograph as she stood next to a cantilever bench bearing the engraved name of Patricia E. Mickler. "Everybody talked about her smile all the time."
Dillaber eventually became involved with the Pentagon Memorial Fund, the group that has overseen the development and construction of the project that broke ground in June 2006. "That was the tie that kept me here," she said of the organization.
The memorial park, which opens to the public next month on the seven-year anniversary of the attack, elicits a sharp mixture of feelings for Dillaber.
"I wish it wasn't here. But it is," she said, choking back tears. "And I want to honor Patty's memory."