2021 | News

UPDATED: 20 years later, Montgomery County reflects on Sept. 11 terrorist attacks

Attacks took lives of thousands of Americans, including 11 county residents at Pentagon

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Michele Heidenberger, 52, of Chevy Chase, was one of 11 Montgomery County residents killed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. She served as a flight attendant for American Airlines for almost three decades, and was on Flight 77, which struck the Pentagon. She is pictured in 1981.

Photo from Thomas Heidenberger

This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. Sept. 10, 2021 to correct that Alison Heidenberger attended Loyola College in Maryland, which is now named Loyola University Maryland.

Saturday marks two decades since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States.

On that day, planes crashed into the Twin Towers, then the Pentagon, then in a large field near Shanksville, Pa. Thousands of people were killed. Eleven county residents died at the Pentagon.

Given Montgomery County’s proximity to Washington, D.C., many residents feared for the safety of loved ones, friends and first responders who were called to New York City or the Pentagon.

Here, some people who were affected look back on that day:

Thomas Heidenberger

Thomas Heidenberger’s wife, Michele, was a flight attendant for roughly three decades when she boarded American Airlines Flight 77, which was scheduled to travel from Dulles International Airport in Virginia to Los Angeles. 

Michele was “a consummate professional” who looked after her passengers during her flights, said Thomas Heidenberger, 75, who lives in Chevy Chase. She also volunteered much of her time at St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville, working with abandoned children, Heidenberger said.

The Heidenberger family in August 2001. Clockwise from left: Michele, Alison, Thomas and Thomas. (photo from Thomas Heidenberger)

On Flight 77, five children were on their first airplane ride, looking forward to a trip to Disneyland in California, Heidenberger said. He doesn’t know for sure, but he likes to think that in their last moments, his wife was there to console them. 

“What is critical is the pain never goes away. The pain of loss never goes away. But over time, it becomes more manageable,” Heidenberger said.

Aside from watching the events unfold on TV, Heidenberger also reflects on how he had to break the news to his children: Alison, who was a junior at Loyola College in Maryland (now Loyola University Maryland), and Thomas, who was a freshman at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C.

When Thomas got home, he asked whether his mom was in New York. His father answered that she wasn’t  — she had died in a plane crash at the Pentagon.

“The hardest thing a parent will ever do, regardless of the circumstance, is tell their child that their mother or their father has been killed or deceased,” Heidenberger said. 

“He went, and instead of coming to me and hugging me and clinging to me, he went to our dog,” he said. “And he and the dog laid on the floor, just crying and wailing. And that’s something that’s gonna stick with me forever.”

Kelvin Thomas and Ray Sanchez

Kelvin Thomas, 53, and Ray Sanchez, 59, work for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.

Thomas was a master firefighter, essentially a fire truck driver, and Sanchez was a captain with a specialty in hazardous materials response on Sept. 11, 2001.

Kelvin Thomas (photo from Kelvin Thomas)

Both responded to the Pentagon after Flight 77 hit its western side at 9:37 a.m.

Thomas, who was assigned to a fire station in Silver Spring, was en route to Rockville for training, as part of the Urban Search and Rescue Team. Team members were driving through downtown Rockville when a county police officer pulled up to their firetruck and asked if they heard that a plane hit the World Trade Center. 

By the time they entered the station in Rockville, the second plane had hit in New York City. Not long after, the Pentagon was hit.

Thomas called his wife, Narcisa, who was working in downtown Washington, D.C., and told her to get home. 

Firefighters who deployed to Rockville had gone back to their respective stations and were told to be on alert, Thomas said. Soon after that, he was en route to the Pentagon.

Sanchez had just gotten off his shift and headed to the fire training academy in Rockville. He was slated to go to Haiti to teach a hazardous-materials course. 

Then, like Thomas, he saw the news on TV. And, like Thomas, Sanchez was part of the Urban Search and Rescue Team, so he thought he might be making the trip up to New York. Instead, once Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, he was ordered to head there.

Ray Sanchez (photo from Ray Sanchez)

Sanchez and Thomas both described a dynamic, chaotic scene at the Pentagon, hours after the plane crash. Parts of the building were on fire. They could see smoke from miles away driving in.

They had to be careful as they searched the building for any potential survivors, because they didn’t know what hazardous materials were present, and there was some flooding inside. 

But amid all that, both said they were on a mission — perhaps a blessing, given that other Americans were watching the horror of the day on TV or in person.

“I think, to some degree, I felt insulated from all the news coverage, and all the other stuff that was happening that day with the towers, because obviously we were busy,” Thomas said.

Kelvin Thomas, right, at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. (photo from Kelvin Thomas)

“I’m seeing news coverage that I hadn’t seen before. … Having to consume and process all of that information at one time, I mean, that that can be devastating to people,” he added.

But there was still the sense that nobody knew what was going on, Sanchez said. Was the country at war? Were other planes hijacked? A bunch of questions ran through his head.

And then, on the way to the Pentagon, one of his colleagues, Danny Boyd, thought his wife had died. 

Boyd’s wife was scheduled for a 9:30 a.m. meeting at the World Trade Center. But she and some colleagues had stayed out late the night before, so her boss told them to come in late.

Ray Sanchez (bottom left) and squad members at the Pentagon. (photo from Ray Sanchez)

But Boyd couldn’t reach her, Sanchez recalled. Boyd, for a moment, was visibly upset — then refocused on the mission.

His wife turned out to be OK. But it illustrated the life of a firefighter, Sanchez said.

“As firefighters, we’re very task-oriented,” said Sanchez, who found a driver’s license of one of the terrorists from Flight 77 at the Pentagon. “And so you give us a task, you give us a job, we go do it. … You’re looking at that particular job, and not maybe everything on the global scale, you’re looking at that task at hand. And that task at hand that we had was to go in and rescue anybody we could.”

Ken Feinberg

Ken Feinberg, a 75-year-old Bethesda resident, is well known for his efforts in setting up the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which was created by Congress to compensate victims of the attack.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Feinberg was teaching a tort law class at the University of Pennsylvania law school in Philadelphia. After stepping out of the classroom, he noticed on TV that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. 

Ken Feinberg (photo from Nicole Rosen)

He figured it was an accident. Then, he drove to 30th Street Station to head back to Washington, D.C., and saw on TV that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center.

“You knew it was no longer an accident. It was some sort of attack,” Feinberg said.

He then hopped on the train south, but the passengers were ordered off at Wilmington, Del. And then, he saw on TV that a plane had hit the Pentagon.

Feinberg and some friends on the train hailed a cab, which took them all the way back to Washington, D.C.

“It was a shocking, surreal day,” he said. “It’s like those who remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated. Where they were on the day of Pearl Harbor. I mean, there were certain days in American history that you will never forget.”

Imam Faizul R. Khan

Imam Faizul R. Khan, one of the founding members of the Islamic Society of the Washington Area, in the Fairland area of Silver Spring, was not in greater Washington, D.C., during Sept. 11, 2001.

Imam Faizul R. Khan (photo from Imam Faizul R. Khan)

He was in Guyana, his home country, visiting his parents. Then Khan, 79, heard about the attacks, and quickly came back to the United States.

There was a lot of hostility toward Muslims and Islam in the months after that, Khan said. He wrote an op-ed in The Washington Times in October 2001 condemning the attacks, saying they did not represent Muslims or the Islamic faith.

“I said to myself, ‘How could you do this?’ … and they call themselves Muslims?” Khan said of the terrorists. “How could you do this? This is strictly against the tenets of Islam. … And I strongly came back and spoke about it publicly, and denounced the actions.”

Not long after the attacks, Khan and other religious leaders met with then-President George W. Bush at the White House.

The leaders, who represented Catholicism, Judaism and other religions, made their point that no religion condones the sort of attack the terrorists carried out. But Khan knew as the Muslim in the room, he really needed to make that clear.

Imam Faizul R. Khan, in white, meeting with other religious leaders and then-President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. (photo from Imam Faizul R. Khan)

“The pressure was on me to really talk about what Islam says about violence and killing innocent lives,” Khan said. “If they were true Muslims, they would never adhere to something like that. Islam doesn’t teach [anything] like that in the Quran, or any other scripture.”

Reflecting 20 years later, Khan said Montgomery County appreciates all faiths and religions, including Islam. It’s up to everyone to be understanding of faiths and religions, he said.

“The world needs to understand humanity a little better. … We need to appreciate each other more closely. We need to be tolerant to each other’s faith,” Khan said. “We need to be more aggressive in our … propagation of true values of humanity and decency and moral values.”

Eleven county residents

The 11 Montgomery County residents who died at the Pentagon were:

  • William Edward Caswell, 54 of Silver Spring. He hailed from Boston and was a physicist and former University of Maryland faculty member who worked as a civilian for the Navy.
  • Dr. Gerald Paul Fisher, 57, of Potomac. He was born in New York City and grew up in Los Angeles. He was at the Pentagon for a briefing with the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, concerning a system for survivor benefits for military employees.
  • Capt. Lawrence D. Getzfred, 57, originally from Elgin, Neb. He climbed the ranks in the U.S. Navy, beginning in 1963. He worked in the Pentagon on the staff of the deputy director of plans, policy, and operations.
  • Michele M. Heidenberger, 52, of Chevy Chase. She was a flight attendant for American Airlines for nearly 30 years and on Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. Besides St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home, she also worked with the American Red Cross, Stone Ridge of the Sacred Heart, Mater Dei, and Gonzaga College High School.
  • Angela Marie Houtz, 27, originally from La Plata. She worked in the Pentagon for the Chief of Naval Operations Intelligence Plot, and also served as Chief of Naval Operations Intelligence Plot before his last role as a senior analyst. 
  • Teddington Hamm Moy, 48, originally from Washington, D.C. He was a program manager in information management support for the Army, working at the Pentagon.
  • Lt. Darin H. Pontell, 26, of Gaithersburg. He was originally from Columbia, and worked in naval intelligence throughout his career. Pontell was finishing a 12-hour shift at the Pentagon when a plane struck the building.
  • Scott A. Powell, 35, of Silver Spring. He was a software engineer and was working as a civilian contractor for BTG Inc. at the time of the attack.
  • Todd Hayes Reuben, 40, of Potomac, was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77. He was a corporate partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Venable, Baetjer, and Howard. He specialized in tax and business transactions.
  • Patricia J. Statz, 41, of Takoma Park. She was originally from Chippewa Falls, Wisc., and worked as an actress and director at U.S. Army theaters in Germany before moving to Maryland in 2000 and beginning work at the Pentagon.
  • Ernest M. Willcher, 62, of North Potomac. He spent 40 years in the U.S. Army before retiring and serving on a consulting basis at the Pentagon as an associate of Booz, Allen, & Hamilton. Along with Fisher, he was briefing the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel on a system for survivor benefits for military employees.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com