WASHINGTON (AP) — The victims' families and the nation still grieve, but the once-charred and jagged western flank of the Pentagon no longer looks much like the scene of an American tragedy.
Except for flags waving from two 140-foot-tall cranes, there is little indication that the 400,000 square-foot chunk now missing from the building is anything other than an ordinary construction project.
As the year in which terrorist hijackers rammed a passenger-filled jetliner into the Pentagon's side becomes history, the knoll across a highway from the crash site no longer routinely draws crowds of people coming to see for themselves, weep and pay respects.
Several makeshift memorials that sprang up in the days and weeks after the attack have for the most part disappeared. Movers packed up the hundreds of letters, teddy bears, photographs, flags and other mementos, perhaps for future displays.
Of the 4,600 Pentagon workers displaced, 1,000 are back in their offices. The rest continue on in rented space.
Just more than two weeks ago, the last of the eight most severely wounded victims finally was discharged from Washington Hospital Center's burn unit — three months and a week after going in. The critically burned still face months of additional skin grafts, reconstructive surgeries and painful physical therapy.
The Pentagon itself is a beehive of activity, very much back in business — waging war in Central Asia and maybe someday beyond to find and destroy those responsible for the terrorist attacks in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania.
It also has regained an old title. The destruction of the World Trade Center's twin towers again gives the Pentagon the unconditional, but unwanted, honor of being the world's biggest office building.
"We used to say the largest under one roof," Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said, "but we are the largest now."
There has been some bitterness that the experience of those affected by the Pentagon attack has at times been overshadowed by the magnitude of the horror in New York.
Of course, what happened on Sept. 11 across the Potomac River from Washington would alone have been enough to transfix the nation. Terrorists diverted American Airlines Flight 77 from its course toward Los Angeles out of Dulles International Airport, slamming it at 350 miles an hour and from six feet up into the nerve center of America's defense.
The massive explosion and fire fed by 20,000 gallons of jet fuel spread destruction over 2 million square feet — almost a third of the building. It killed 189 people, 125 inside and 64 on the plane.
Luck — if it can be called that — had it that the terrorists aimed the Boeing 757 at the only part of the Pentagon that already had been renovated in an 11-year, $1.3 billion project meant to bolster it against attack. That significantly limited the damage and loss of life by slowing the plane as it tore through the building and reducing the explosion's reach.
In the renovated section outside the immediate crash zone, most damage was caused by smoke and water that poured out of brand-new sprinklers. Many of these offices are occupied again.
But there was extensive fire damage hundreds of feet away in unrenovated areas that had not yet had sprinklers installed. The fire was so intense it cracked concrete.
That meant a 100-yard wide piece of the Pentagon's western face had to come down, including all five floors and three of the building's five rings. In all, trucks carted off 47,000 tons of debris — six percent of the building.
The demolition took just one month and a day, aided by 24-7 work hours and landfills that stayed open all night.
Weary workers celebrated the day they finished, Nov. 19, by placing a Christmas tree on the roof. It marked a turning point toward the positive: They would now stop tearing down and start building up.
The reconstruction is expected to cost over $700 million and take until spring 2003. The most immediate — and ambitious — goal is to rebuild the outermost ring of offices by the one-year anniversary of the attack, when a memorial is to be dedicated.
Slabs of Indiana limestone cut to exactly match the original exterior started arriving two weeks ago, said Will Bybee, president of the Bybee Stone Co. in Bloomington, Ind. The new section eventually will require 18,000 cubic feet of stone, carved from the same vein, though not the same quarry, as the original.
Rebuilding the lives of the critically injured and those who lost loved ones will be much harder.
Some relatives of those killed are coping by forming advocacy groups to represent their interests on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
Also, 110 people were injured in the attack, including the eight severely burned, said Navy Cmdr. Yvette Brown Wahler, director of the Pentagon Family Assistance Center. Some have gone back to their jobs, but the Pentagon was unable to say how many.
Dr. Marion Jordan, chief of the Hospital Center's burn-treatment facility, believes all of the eight will eventually be able to care for themselves and do at least some of the things they love. Some will now start recovering relatively quickly.
For others, it will take many, many months. Civilian accountant Louise Kurtz, the last to be discharged on Dec. 17, was burned over 70% of her body and lost all her fingers and parts of both ears, Jordan said. Others also lost many fingers or were burned deep into tendon and muscle, he said.
Leaving the hospital, however, was a huge first step toward reclaiming their lives.
"We celebrated each one of them leaving," Jordan said. "I don't get a whole lot of rest or peace of mind until I see the backs of them going out the door."