The first notes of The Star-Spangled Banner filled the night as a sea of people dressed in red, white and blue flooded the south lawn of the Pentagon.
Most wandered through the gravel maze inside the new Pentagon Memorial, speaking in muffled whispers and pausing to snap photographs or admire flowers decorating many of the 184 stainless steel benches.
Others weaved through the crowd in search of a particular bench, crouching to read each engraving until they found the name they were looking for.
The roar of a jet engine overhead went unnoticed by many, but not the crowd gathered at the southernmost edge of the memorial, closest to the airport.
A plane! several people whispered, frozen in place as they watched the red and white lights flash across the dark sky.
In the 10 seconds that it took for the plane to pass safely over the Pentagon, a curtain of silence settled over the crowd at the southernmost edge of the memorial. Only the flash of a reporters camera broke the stillness, snapping the crowd back to life as they resumed their journey along the gravel path.
Although the flood of families, young children, mourners and journalists who filled the memorial on Thursday night might have diverted attention from the powerful architectural design, their presence created an atmosphere of strength and unity.
Its crowded, said Frank Little, standing beside the bench honoring Capt. Charles Burlingame, his neighbor who piloted American Airlines Flight 77 and died in the crash. Still, its nice to have a place to actually go to have a moment.
Hundreds turned out to honor Burlingame and the other 183 who lost their lives when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon seven years ago. The memorial officially opened to the public Thursday night at 7 p.m., to the Navy Band and Sea Chanters Chorus musical tribute.
Every visitor had his own reason for attending.
Im here out of respect, Brennan Jacques said. I think we kind of owe it to them.
I just kind of felt like I needed to be here, said another visitor, Michael Lutz, with the hint of a tear in his eye.
Others, like Patty Henson, whose husband was working in the Pentagon on 9/11 and survived, felt closely connected to the new memorial.
I saw [the Pentagon] the day the plane crashed and it means a lot for me to be able to see it now, all better, Henson said.
Ken Proctor, who brought his two teenagers to the opening, also personally remembers the destruction.
I came down to the Pentagon a week after it happened, Proctor said. Its good to see were starting to heal.
The memorial has been in the works since July 2002 when the Army Corps of Engineers organized an international competition inviting artists to submit designs for a Pentagon memorial. Keith Kaseman and Julie Beckman won the contest and supervised the construction of 184 cantilevered benches with lighted pools of moving water underneath.
Their design is filled with symbolism and detail. Each bench represents one victim of the Pentagon attacks and is located along an age line representing the year the victim was born.
The benches are also positioned to distinguish those victims who were in the Pentagon from those who were aboard Flight 77. If the victims name is engraved so that the visitors see the lettering and the Pentagon in the same view, then the victim was inside the Pentagon. If the lettering is engraved so visitors see the victims name and the sky in the same view, the person was aboard Flight 77.
The embedded meaning and detail impressed many of the visitors who flocked to the south lawn of the Pentagon for the memorials opening.
Its very moving and shows they put a lot of forethought into it, said Patrick McLaughlin, who lives near the Pentagon and heard the plane crash on 9/11.
At first, I didnt understand the benches with the directions and all, but I think it fits now that Im here, said another visitor, Lindy Salem.
Its beautiful, agreed Rosalyn, who declined to give her last name. She served in the Air Force for 28 years and worked in the Pentagon from 1995 to 1999. It makes you appreciate the freedom we have in this country. I am proud to be a part of this.
As the final notes of the band died away at 9 p.m., the crowds began to disperse. Those who lingered huddled around individual benches studying the poems, photographs and American flags left behind in each victims honor. Some, tired of standing, ventured to sit on the steel benches that had remained empty throughout the evening despite the crowd. The scuffle of shoes had strewn pebbles across the cement walkways and into the water pools, while the movement of stroller wheels had left a labyrinth of grooves on the gravel paths.
As those who remained moved unhurriedly inside the memorial, another plane passed safely overhead.