ANNAPOLIS – University Park is a safe town. The eight police officers handle fewer than 100 crimes a year, and the 2,300 residents haven’t seen a murder since 1994.
Then came Sept. 11. The insular brick-and-stone community in Prince George’s County was shocked into understanding it is not immune from the dangers of the outside world.
When American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon that day, University Park lost five of its own: Charles Falkenberg and Leslie Whittington of Tennyson Street were on the Los Angeles-bound flight with their two daughters, Zoe, 8, and Dana, 3. Sheila Hein of Sheridan Street was working an internship inside the building.
It is the disaster’s largest toll on any single Maryland town to date.
“I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this happening to the community before,” said University Park Mayor John Brunner.
“You’d have to go back to World War II to find (a loss) like this. . . . But never in a single incident.”
News spread quickly that Tuesday night and Wednesday morning as neighbors pieced together – before any names were released to the public – that their friends likely were among the victims of the Pentagon attack.
Wednesday night, Sept. 12, nearly 600 shaken neighbors gathered in the basement of Riverdale Presbyterian Church, the town’s makeshift community center. They came with food and prayers for their absent friends.
“It was very spontaneous, we literally started spreading the word,” said Beth Rhodes, president of the University Park Civic Association and friend of the Falkenbergs.
“We were prepared to not see them for a year,” Rhodes said of her friends. The family was headed for Australia, where Whittington, a Georgetown University economics professor, was to spend the next few months of her sabbatical.
The Wednesday before the crash, a group of University Park women in the town’s babysitting cooperative took Whittington out for a farewell dinner. The men treated Falkenberg, a software designer, to a dinner the next night.
“We . . . had a lot of time to reflect on how much they meant to us,” Rhodes said.
At Sheila Hein’s house, a few blocks away from the Falkenbergs’ home, the tree in the front yard has a yellow ribbon tied around it. The driveway and the curbside out front fill up with cars at night.
“They’ve had a lot of friends coming by,” said neighbor John Aler. “They are terrific neighbors.”
Hein and her partner, Peg Neff, moved into their house nearly a decade ago. It had been rented out to students before they came, and it was, in Aler’s words, “a mess.”
“You can’t believe what a jungle it was,” Aler said. “Sheila and Peggy bought it and really just worked wonders with it. They love their house.”
Hein, in particular, worked to transform the back yard into a garden that’s famous throughout University Park.
Since the attacks, Sheila Hein has not been memorialized in town to the extent that the Falkenberg family has, in part because her death has not yet been confirmed. But Aler and Brunner, the mayor, say she is just as missed.
“It’s been hard,” Aler said. “I think until we saw (Hein’s) picture in the Post, we had really been holding out hope.”
University Park is working hard to handle the loss of both the Falkenberg family and Hein.
Residents turned out in “huge” numbers at the nearby Red Cross to donate blood, Brunner said.
The town plans to sponsor a full-page tribute to the University Park victims in the local paper, Rhodes said. And the town council is already discussing a permanent town memorial, Brunner said.
Even ex-residents are volunteering their help and condolences to the town.
“We have some professional grief counselors who used to live here,” Brunner said. “They heard about (the deaths) and volunteered to come talk to people here.”
The counselors spoke to children Thursday night at the Presbyterian Church.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a University Park homeowner, sent his wishes to his neighbors.
“When you take five confirmed deaths out of 2,200, it’s a very traumatic thing,” Glendening said. “It’s going to be difficult.”
At University Park Elementary School, Zoe Falkenberg’s classmates have put together a ceremony for Monday to remember her and the other victims of the attack.
For the past week, the school’s fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders have planned an hour-long celebration they named “Hope and Promise.” The mayor, police chief and a survivor of the Pentagon attack will attend.
The students will read poems and essays and sing songs dedicated to the victims, and they’ll read a piece written by Zoe, who would have been in fourth grade.
Outside, they will plant a plum tree for Zoe, because she loved plums. Principal Brenda Foxx said the tree was a great idea, “The kids came up with that one.”