UNIVERSITY PARK – Zoe Falkenberg would have been 18 this year. Her parents would have taken her and her younger sister, Dana, to Australia in September 2001. They would have returned to Maryland to grow up.
Instead, Zoe is frozen at 8 years old in the memories of her friends. She and the rest of her family were killed aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon Sept. 11, 2001.
“She was supposed to come back in November, and we were supposed to have a joint Beanie Babies birthday party,” said Katie Fenster, now 18, and best friends with Zoe since as far back as she can remember.
Fenster, who said she was too young to comprehend the attacks as they happened, remembers being excited to get out of school early. She was playing with stuffed animals in a loft bed and noticed her mom in the backyard. Her mom had a strange look on her face, and Fenster went to see what was happening. The sky was bright, almost totally clear.
Her parents told her planes had crashed. They said her grandparents were OK. They said her aunt in Manhattan was OK.
Then they told her Zoe and her family had been killed.
She lay in a hammock with her parents, sobbing, without understanding.
“When you’re that little, you don’t really process it,” said Fenster, then a fourth-grader at University Park Elementary School. “You have to process it as you grow older.”
With the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks imminent, Zoe’s friends and neighbors recalled the day and considered what was lost when the Falkenberg family was killed with so much life still ahead.
Judy Feder, a colleague of Zoe and Dana’s mother, Leslie Whittington, at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute remembered hearing of the attacks on her way to work. She dismissed the idea that Whittington and her family would have been on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon.
Later that day, she and her colleagues had confirmed through an email chain that the family had been passengers.
She recalled Whittington and husband, Charles Falkenberg, a software engineer at ECOlogic Corp., shared a strong sense of humor and raised two girls who were just beginning to blossom.
“I think from time to time — and then try not to think — what it must have been like to be on that plane,” Feder said. “I think about those intelligent and inquisitive little girls asking questions and how horrifying that must have been.”
Third-grade teacher, Michele Rowland said Zoe was the smallest student in her class the year before, but one of the brightest.
Teresa Puma, a teacher’s aide, used to watch Dana ride on her dad’s shoulders as they crossed the bridge from their house to meet Zoe at school.
The family had been looking forward to their trip to Australia, where Whittington would have been a visiting professor. They were en route to Los Angeles from Washington Dulles International Airport when hijackers took over their plane.
Fenster, along with their other best friend, Zoe Craig, used to call Zoe’s mom “Mama Leslie.” The Falkenberg girls, and sometimes their friends, would read with their parents before bed — often Harry Potter books — and then they’d sing “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
The song still makes Fenster, now a college student, cry.
Dana was only 3, but usually smiling, Fenster recalls, and she said Zoe was someone who still makes her want to be a better person.
“Even when you’re young, you can tell someone’s going to grow up to be great,” she said.
Alan Berube, now a senior fellow and research director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Programs, said Whittington was a bright and approachable teacher who always kept her lessons relatable.
“She could find humor in economics — which can be rare,” said Berube, who took classes from Whittington from 1997-1999 and served as her teaching assistant.
The Falkenbergs were among the 184 people killed as a result of the attacks on the Pentagon. Another 40 victims died about United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania and 2,753 people were killed in the World Trade Center attack in New York City.
At the time, students at University Park Elementary School understood something bad had happened, Rowland said, but most didn’t really know what the attacks meant. But memories of that day have stayed with Zoe’s friends and classmates who never got to see her again.
“Some of those girls were shaken up forever,” said Puma, who now teaches students not yet born in 2001.
A memorial garden to the Falkenberg family and another University Park Pentagon victim, Sheila Hein, was dedicated in 2005 in University Park. The garden features a coil of smooth, fist-sized stones with five much larger stones to honor five members of the community killed that day.
The garden is secluded in a quiet neighborhood. It’s bordered by tall trees, away from major roads. Above is the continuous hum of airliners on a flight path over the area.
Feder said the attacks feel like a far-off memory, but she owes it to her friend to remember everyone killed that day.
“You think about how they might have been,” Feder said of Zoe and Dana. “They didn’t get to go on.”