The Muslim engineer who rebuilt the Pentagon crash site as a chapel
Eighteen years ago on a September morning she’ll never forget, Manal Ezzat fled from the burning Pentagon building in such a panicked rush that her hijab fell off.
The next day, when the fires were still burning, Ezzat set to her task of rebuilding. Her vision, and the work of a huge team of public servants, led to what arose from the ashes: a new use for a site forever marked by tragedy.
Today, at the very spot where the plane piloted by terrorists crashed into the Pentagon, there is a chapel. Eighteen years after the mass murder of 184 people here, U.S. military employees of every faith gather daily to pray.
“There was a lot of emotion built into that effort,” Ezzat said this year, as she contemplated the anniversary of a day she still can’t fully comprehend. “We just wanted to make it a peaceful place that could help wipe away the tragedy.”
Ezzat, an Army Corps of Engineers employee who was project manager for the Army’s space in the Pentagon at the time of the attack, knew right away when she and her co-workers were charged with designing the reconstruction that she didn’t want to make that segment of the Pentagon into office space again. No one would want his or her office there, she reasoned. Instead, she searched for a meaningful new purpose.
What emerged was a quiet sanctuary with cushioned blue seats and prayer books from several denominations. Stained glass windows pay tribute to those who died here: “United in Memory, September 11, 2001.” Anyone who wishes can walk next door to a memorial, where every victim’s name is written on the wall, and their life stories, as written by their loved ones, are told in two thick books. Pentagon employees who just want to visit the chapel without stopping at the memorial can enter through alternate doors.
A schedule posted on the wall shows Episcopal and Lutheran services every Wednesday, Hindu services and Jewish study sessions every Thursday, Greek Orthodox services every Friday, Buddhist prayers twice a month, and more.
The chapel’s most frequent users, according to chaplain Monica R. Lawson, are the Catholics who attend daily Mass there and the Muslims among the Pentagon’s massive workforce of 26,000 people. Some Muslims who pray five times a day, as is traditional, visit the chapel when they need a private space to pray. As a group, Muslims pray daily in midafternoon in the chapel and host a service with a sermon every Friday.
Today, she is the program manager for Defense Department schools, which educate military members’ children around the world. Ezzat, who came to the United States from Egypt as a young child, says she can’t imagine a job she would want more than supporting the service members who defend American ideals.
With almost 25 years in the Corps under her belt and a new grandchild drawing her attention, she is starting to think about retirement.
She remains proud of what she built out of tragedy 18 years ago, the time she created a religious haven out of wreckage. “It’s part of the healing process,” she said.