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An unsung hero of the 9/11 attack:
An unsung hero of the 9/11 attack: The Muslim engineer who rebuilt the Pentagon crash site as a chapel

WASHINGTON — 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 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.

For Ezzat — who is Muslim and who was bothered by those who blamed her entire religion because the terrorists who attacked the Pentagon were Muslim extremists — seeing Muslims who are devoted U.S. military employees at prayer in the chapel is fulfilling.

“On a personal level, I heard things, negative things... . You’d hear it in the hallways and the corridors. ‘Oh, those idiots did this and did that.’ It hurt me,” she said. She wanted to argue — to say that the terrorists were a few horrible people, not representatives of her religion. But she brushed it off. “I’d hear it and get upset over it, and a minute later, I’m done with it,” she said.

Qawiy Abdullah Sabree, a cybersecurity expert who has been a civilian employee at the Pentagon for 27 years, goes to the chapel every day, sometimes twice on Fridays. He often finds himself bowing to say Muslim prayers alongside co-workers who might be reading from a Christian prayer book, standing for Jewish davening or sitting in quiet meditation.

“It gives me that escape from the daily routine of work, to have a place to come and just reflect on your beliefs, reflect on the creator that gave us life. It’s a very good thing to have,” he said. “The Pentagon is a place for employment... . It’s a privilege to have a place for prayer.”

Sabree was just feet away from co-workers who were killed when the plane hit the Pentagon. Had he not stepped away to talk to another employee, he says, he would have died with them. “It’s something you do not forget. And so you remember it and keep it from happening again, ever,” he said. “That space where the chapel actually is, it’s a reminder.”

Lawson, who is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and one of three full-time chaplains stationed at the Pentagon, said she sees this chapel as an exemplar of the American values that the terrorists couldn’t destroy.

“Every day that I come in here, I think about that,” she said. “It’s a reminder of how privileged and honored we should be that we live in a country where we can worship here at work. The first day I started here, it hit me, the significance — where the chapel is located.”

While the other two Pentagon chaplains are both Protestants like Lawson, the staff chaplains work to recruit qualified leaders for services for all other faith groups that want to use the space. “We all say ‘one nation under God,’ “ she said. “When you walk in and you see that, and people are respectful of one another’s religion, it’s a blessing.”

Ezzat said she appreciates that her team created a prayer space where Muslims who devote their careers to America’s security can worship, in the very space where extremists attacked. “The faithful prayers which take place in this space, whether it’s Jewish prayer, Islamic prayer, Christian prayer, I think it’s beautiful,” she said. “In Islam, we believe prayers — supplications — to the dead reach them, wherever they are.”

The rush to rebuild the Pentagon was all-consuming. The young service members who give tours of the Pentagon to visitors still brag about it — how the construction team was told to rebuild in three years, and managed to do it in less than one. How they worked almost 24/7 to do it, and then donated all that overtime pay, about $3 million, to pay for this chapel and memorial and to support victims’ families.

At the end of that year, Ezzat was exhausted, and overwhelmed from grieving for the co-workers she lost. “When I worked at the Pentagon, I just felt I was with my second family... . It just destroyed me,” she said. “I needed to get out of here. The building brought back a lot of bad memories. I just couldn’t stay.”

Ezzat received a doctorate in structural engineering and then worked in private practice before joining the Army Corps of Engineers. Her first role in the Corps was working on the renovation of the Pentagon, a years-long project that was underway when the 2001 attack took place.

Ezzat says her earlier work reinforcing the exterior of the building, a costly project she had fought to get approved, saved lives when the terrorists attacked. The floors above the crash site collapsed more than 20 minutes after the initial impact, enough time for everyone there — Ezzat says it was 1,500 people — to walk out alive.

When the reconstruction that included the chapel was done in 2002, she requested a transfer out of the Pentagon, and got it.

When she herself prays, five times a day, she prays alone.

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.


Olivia Belanger / Sentinel Staff 

About 20 community members gathered in Keene’s Central Square for the annual suicide awareness candlelight vigil Tuesday night, hosted by The Samaritans. The vigil falls each year on International Suicide Awareness Day.


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Man indicted in Walpole theft that preceded Bay State stabbing

A Manchester man accused of stealing a car last October in Walpole, N.H., and leading police on a chase through Vermont before stabbing a state trooper in New Salem, Mass., is expected to plead guilty this month in a Massachusetts court.

Meanwhile, Nghia V. Le, 19, has been indicted on a felony theft charge in New Hampshire in connection with the alleged Walpole carjacking.

Massachusetts State Police said at the time that Le was involved in a crash with another vehicle in Walpole around noon on Oct. 19. He subsequently took that car, a Toyota Camry, from the other driver and fled south on Interstate 91 through Vermont and Massachusetts, according to police.

Police pursued Le to the intersection of Route 202 and Fay Road in New Salem, Mass., where he crashed the Camry, according to Massachusetts State Police. Le started stabbing a state trooper and was shot, non-fatally, by police, the agency said.

The trooper, Mark Whitcomb, survived.

Last month, a Cheshire County grand jury indicted Le on a charge of theft by unauthorized taking, alleging he stole the Camry from Elizabeth Prentiss while she was stopped at the intersection of Route 123 and Valley Road in Walpole.

An indictment is not an indication of guilt, but a means of charging someone with a crime.

Le has yet to be arraigned on the Cheshire County charge.

In Massachusetts, he is charged with multiple felonies, including armed assault with intent to murder.

A change of plea hearing — the purpose of which is for a defendant to plead guilty — is scheduled for Sept. 27 in Franklin Superior Court in Greenfield, Mass., according to Mary Carey, a spokeswoman for the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office.


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More Americans go without health coverage despite strong economy, Census says

The proportion of Americans without health insurance grew significantly last year for the first time this decade, even as the economy’s strength pushed down the poverty level to its lowest point since 2001, according to new federal data.

The findings released Tuesday, based on a large U.S. Census Bureau survey, reverse the trend that began when the Affordable Care Act expanded opportunities for poor and some middle-income people to get affordable coverage.

Taken together with other reported measures of Americans’ well-being, the census data paint a portrait of an economy pulled in different directions, with a falling poverty rate but also high inequality and a growing cadre of people at financial risk because they do not have health coverage.

As more Americans found jobs, the poverty rate fell last year to its lowest level since 2001 and middle-class income inched higher. Median U.S. income — the point at which half of U.S. families more and half earn less — topped $63,000 for the first time, although it was roughly the same level as it was in 1999, after adjusting for inflation.

“Median household income today is right where it was in 1999. We’ve seen two decades with no progress for the middle class,” said University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers. “The economy is producing more than before, but the gains aren’t being shared equally.”

The data showed that incomes rose substantially in big cities last year but declined in smaller ones. And poverty rose for adults over 25 without high school diplomas.

“Some of the folks who fueled the Trump candidacy and presidency still aren’t doing great,” said Matt Weidinger, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who watches poverty trends closely.

With health care already a central issue in the 2020 presidential campaigns and a prime voter concern, meanwhile, the fresh evidence that insurance is slipping further out of Americans’ reach is virtually certain to escalate partisan warring about Americans’ access to affordable coverage.

The uninsured rate rose as well in 2018, marking the first time since 2009 that both the number of Americans without coverage and the uninsurance rate rose significantly from the year before.

The change was driven primarily by a decrease in public insurance for the poor, with enrollment in Medicaid dropping by 0.7 percent, the data show. The uninsured rate spiked especially among adults who are Hispanic and foreign-born, with the increase in uninsured among both groups three times the national average. Coverage also dwindled among children who are Hispanic and naturalized citizens.

Health policy experts interpreted those patterns as evidence of a chilling effect from the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict several forms of public assistance, including Medicaid, for immigrants seeking to remain in the United States. In addition, some state have been clamping down on eligibility rules for Medicaid.

“The word has gone out if you use Medicaid, then you are a public charge and you’re liable not to get a green card,” said Sara Rosenbaum, a George Washington University health law and policy professor, who called the patterns of health coverage for immigrant children “alarm bell territory.”

“People are not only not enrolling, they are coming in [to Medicaid offices} and asking to be disenrolled.” Rosenbaum said.

Health insurance has long been recognized as crucial to people’s ability to get medical care when they need it. The availability of insurance is influenced by a variety of factors, including economic conditions, because most insured U.S. residents get their health plans through an employer. In recent years, however, both supporters and opponents of the ACA have looked at Census’ yearly insurance data as a portrait of how well the law is working.

Expanding insurance access was a main goal of the ACA, the statute forged by Democrats nearly a decade ago that has reshaped much of the health care system. President Donald Trump and other Republicans contend the law is fatally flawed, while Democrats maintain it has been undermined by recent GOP policies.

As Trump works to dismantle the law and liberal Democratic candidates seek to replace it with a government-financed health-care system, both sides can find ammunition for their interpretation of why the nation’s uninsured rate has started rising again.

Republicans point to how, as premiums escalate, fewer people buy health plans through the ACA’s marketplaces unless they qualify for federal subsidies. Democrats point to how major tax changes, adopted by a Republican Congress at the end of 2017, eliminated the financial penalty for those who violate the ACA’s requirement that most Americans carry health insurance — removing one motivation to stay insured.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a candidate who has long called for “Medicare-for-all,” tweeted on Tuesday, “Mr. Trump lied. He promised to strengthen health care — instead, he has done everything he can to sabotage the Affordable Care Act. The result: Nearly two million people joined the ranks of the uninsured last year.”

A consistent decline in the number of uninsured Americans that began in 2011 actually stopped in 2017, according to census data, with about 400,000 more people than in 2016 reporting they lacked coverage. But that did not amount to a statistically significant change in the uninsured rate.

The new figures for 2018 show that the uninsured rate increased to 8.5 percent of the population from 7.9 percent the year before. In contrast, some 9 million Americans gained coverage between 2013 and 2014, the year that Medicaid expanded in many states and ACA insurance marketplaces opened for individuals and families unable to get affordable health plans through work.

Tuesday’s data make clear that the contraction of insurance has been broad. Around the country, insurance coverage worsened in eight states and improved in three states. For the first time, the Census Bureau broke out the proportion of Americans buying health plans through the health law’s insurance marketplaces. They show that 3.3 percent of people last year got their coverage through such a marketplace. The breakout reinforces how the ACA’s health plans, while attracting considerable political attention, account for only a fraction of the nation’s health insurance.

While Medicaid enrollment fell, the proportion of Americans covered through employer-based insurance did not change significantly. Meanwhile, enrollment in Medicare, the program for elderly and disabled people, grew slightly — probably as a result of the nation’s expanding population of older residents, Census officials said in releasing the data.

The Trump administration cheered the news, meanwhile, that the official U.S. poverty rate fell to 11.8 percent last year (38.1 million people), the lowest since 11.7 percent in 2001, as a sign the president’s policies are working to boost the economy. Businesses have been hiring minority and low-skilled workers at unusually high rates lately, helping give jobs and opportunities to Americans who struggled for years to get a chance.

“Employment is the best way out of poverty,” said Tomas Philipson, acting head of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers. “President Trump’s critics wrongly assert that government programs and handouts are the only way to lift people out of poverty, but today’s data tells a different story.”

The poverty rate for adults who work full-time all year round is 2.3 percent, much lower than the poverty rate for people who do not work, which is nearly 30 percent.

The fall in the U.S. poverty rate has been driven largely by people moving from part-time to full-time work, helping boost incomes. Last year alone, more than 2 million people found full-time jobs, the Census report said.

“We have found quite a big increase in full-time, year-round work that would tend to bring up incomes for working people,” said Trudi Renwick, an assistant division chief at the Census Bureau.

But income inequality also remains near the highest levels of the past half century, according to census data. Recent wage gains by lower-incomeworkers who have found jobs and benefited from minimum wage increases in many states have not been enough to close the long-running trend of the wealthy seeing far larger income gains than the middle or lower classes.

Income for families earning about $15,000 or less have fallen since 2007, according to the latest Census data, while incomes households bring in about $250,000 a year have grown more than 15 percent.


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As flu season looms, so does vaccine hesitancy

It’s that time of year, when the leaves change color, the weather gets colder, and immune systems need to be prepped for the flu.

But even with constant reminders from health officials, pharmacies and doctors to get the flu shot, there is still considerable hesitancy among age groups less susceptible to complications from the disease.

During the 2017-18 flu season, the latest data available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 44 percent of New Hampshire residents received the flu vaccine, 2 percent higher than the national average. Sixty-six percent of children received the vaccine, as did 57 percent of adults 65 or older. But among those between 18 and 64, only 28 percent were vaccinated, 3 percent below the average nationwide.

Dr. Sharon Ferguson, a family practice physician at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, said this is due mainly to common misconceptions about the flu.

Influenza, which most commonly circulates in late fall through early spring, is a respiratory infection spread when people come in close contact with people who have the virus and inhale airborne droplets or touch contaminated surfaces.

The common cold is also a respiratory infection, making it difficult for some people to tell the two diseases apart, Ferguson said.

The flu begins suddenly, accompanied by achy muscles, a severe cough and significant fatigue. For a cold, the symptoms are much more gradual, with a mild cough, sore muscles and tiredness. The cold also typically includes a stuffy and runny nose, while the flu rarely does.

Among healthier age brackets, it can be easy to shrug the flu off as no big deal.

“People get colds and runny noses, stuffy heads, body aches, and they think they have the flu,” Ferguson said. “[They] think, ‘Oh, I’ve had it, it’s not that bad,’ but it probably wasn’t the flu. They don’t understand the flu can be really bad.”

In 2018, 64 adults died from influenza in the state, according to Beth Daly, chief of the state’s Bureau of Infectious Disease Control.

Among them was Amanda Franks, a New Ipswich resident who died at the age of 38 from sudden influenza complications in January of 2018.

Family members described Franks, an alumna of Keene High School, as otherwise healthy.

Ferguson said there is also misinformation about the flu vaccine.

“A lot of people think they can get the flu from the flu shot, which is impossible. The flu shot is not a live vaccine; we are not giving them a little bit of the flu,” she explained.

If someone does get the flu shortly after receiving the shot, Ferguson added it’s only coincidence, and the vaccine will actually limit the severity and length of the disease.

“People say ‘I’m healthy, I don’t get sick,’ “ she noted. “Well, then you just have a really good track record.”

The vaccine changes slightly each year to keep up with flu strains, as they are constantly evolving. The CDC is recommending one of three different injectable vaccines or the nasal vaccination. Anyone over the age of 6 months should get a flu vaccine, according to the CDC.

Daly said it can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to start working, so people should get immunized now.

In addition, she said people should stay home from work or school when feeling ill, cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing and wash their hands diligently.

And in the midst of the anti-vaccination movement, Ferguson said she “very often” has to help patients understand the importance of vaccines.

“There are certainly people that aren’t interested in any vaccine, and a lot of that is just not understanding what preventative medicine is,” she said.

But aside from helping the individual, Ferguson said vaccinations are also about protecting the community as a whole.

“Our healthier population forgets they could be incubating the flu virus and not have symptoms for [up to] two days, so they are thinking about themselves, but not the other people they are around like grandparents or children,” she explained.

And though the vaccine is not perfect — in that it targets only the most common flu strains — it’s still the best preventative option, Ferguson said.

Vaccines can be given at most pharmacies on a walk-in basis and doctors’ offices by appointment.

Cheshire Medical Center, an affiliate of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health System, is also hosting three flu clinics, with the first being held on Oct. 5 from 9 to 11 a.m. for adults only on the hospital’s campus at 580 Court St. in Keene. Insurance companies will be billed after the clinic.

For additional questions, contact the center’s flu hotline at 354-5405.