The singed piece of cloth brought back memories as soon as Martha Jackson-Holley saw it.
“I knew it was Jimmie's handkerchief,” Jackson-Holley said, remembering her husband. “Jimmie always folded his handkerchiefs the same way. The edges were never even. He didn't like me to iron his handkerchiefs. He liked the softness from the dryer.”
Sergeant Adalberto Colon also remembers the handkerchief.
He handled it when it came into the Joint Personal Effects Depot at Fort Myer, where Army Reservists are still working to match jewelry, clothing and other personal effects with victims of the Sept. 11 Pentagon attack.
“I remember that handkerchief,” said Colon, a member of the Army's 311th Quartermaster Unit from Puerto Rico, a group ofReservists activated Sept. 15 to assist with remains and personal effects. “It was found in the pocket, and we had to take it out. It was burned a little on the edges, but it was still intact.”
Ten months after five terrorists crashed an American Airlines jetliner into a wedge of the Pentagon, killing 125 workers there and 59 passengers and crew members, authorities continue to match personal effects with the families of those injured and killed in the attack.
The beige handkerchief belonging to Jimmie Ira Holley, 54, a budget analyst for the Army who died Sept. 11, is among thousands of items matched to victims by officials at the Joint Personal Effects Depot.
The depot, housed in former horse stables at the historic Army base in Arlington, was set up the day after the attack to receive, inventory, photograph, clean, store and distribute items from the Pentagon, the FBI warehouse and Dover Air Force Base, where the bodies were sent for identification.
The inventory provides a poignant glimpse inside the lives of people caught up in the Pentagon tragedy. There are aged photographs of women in bustles, pictures of groups of grinning soldiers, decorated frames with children on playgrounds. There are antique coins, military medals and plaques with scorched nameplates. There are baseball caps, dozens of sets of keys, clocks, CDs ranging from Smash Mouth to the Chicago Symphony, sweaters, several pairs of flat shoes and even an empty bottle of extra-dry Andre champagne. There are gold wedding bands, diamond watches, link bracelets — many gnarled and blackened from the explosion.
“People keep everything in their desks, so there is some of everything in here,” said Sgt. Elmer Feliciano, 32, a supervisor with the 311th. “Looking at the items sort of tells you what some of things were that were important to them.”
The depot is off-limits to families of those who died, but everything there has been recorded in a photographic register shown to family members and Pentagon employees.
The “Unassociated Personal Effects Register,” known to many as The Book, includes more than 300 pages of items that are stored in labeled brown boxes on gray shelves inside the depot awaiting release to survivors and families.
One woman who lost her husband in the attack said she could not bear to look at the register. “I had my son go through it. I waited in another room. It was just too painful,” said Teresa Russell of Upper Marlboro. Her son did not recognize anything that belonged to Robert E. Russell, but a casualty assistance officer delivered some of his papers found in a fireproof file cabinet.
“I wish they hadn't returned the personal effects,” she said. “It set me back. At first I was glad, but then I was upset and depressed all over again after I looked at it.”
Other families, though, have scoured the book and repeatedly called asking if a piece of jewelry or cherished memento has turned up.
Each of the soldiers assigned to the depot has a special story about an item found. Colon remembered Holley's handkerchief because it arrived in a charred pants pocket. In most cases, personal effects are removed from clothing by the FBI before they reach the depot.
“I remember the handkerchief because I thought about it still being folded,” he said. “But I remember most of what we've handled that came in here.”
Like the toy car that was returned to one family and the hand-carved toy that was returned to another. And the desk nameplate that one husband was so desperate for. And the man's wedding band that one family wanted so a new groom could use it.
Maj. Andrew Williams, the depot's operations officer, remembered an insurance card that was returned to one family. “Even something that small — a health care card — it gave them closure,” he said.
Jewelry is returned cleaned, polished and packed in jewelry boxes provided by the post exchange store. Hard items are wrapped in bubble wrap, then boxed. Any items that are not washable and may have come in contact with biological hazards,
such as Holley's singed handkerchief, are sealed in plastic shrink-wrap, which families are urged not to open.
“Please be advised that contents may have been exposed to hazardous materials,” a label attached to every package reads.
Some of those who survived the attack have ventured into the 800-square-foot warehouse to retrieve lost items — sharing with depot workers their chilling stories of the Pentagon attack.
“When you are working with the personal effects, you tell yourself that they are only things, and that helps you deal with it,” said Staff Sgt. Carmen Perez, 43, who has seen her two children only twice since she was called into service Sept. 15. “But when a person comes in and tells you what it was like and how hard it is for them, that's really the difficult part. You try not to cry in here. But sometimes at night. . . ”
Feliciano said the hardest thing for him was looking at wallets. “You see their picture ID and you see what they look like, then you see the pictures of children, and then the list comes out and this man's name was on it. Then you think about the children's pictures and how much that family lost, and you've seen their faces.”
Jackson-Holley wiped away tears as she ran her fingers over the plastic sealed bag that holds the folded handkerchief, left-back pants pocket and piece of brown lizard-skin belt returned to her. The package will top a family memorial she's setting up in her home, which includes Holley's medals and the flag she received the day he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
She was touched and amazed that Colon remembered her husband's handkerchief. “It must be awful for those poor people, but I am glad they are doing this for us,” she said. “This handkerchief, this pocket and this belt are all I have left of my Jimmie.
“I can't touch them, but I can hold this package. At first, I didn't want to have anything to do with it. Then, I thought, these things were with him when he died.”
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard