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Wednesday, September 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In nation's capital, life adjusts to host of new, painful realities

Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — April Gallop's voice sinks when she talks about her son's status: He is the Pentagon attack's youngest survivor.

One more day and things would have turned out so differently.

Gallop returned from maternity leave to her job as an Army administrative aide Sept. 11. She sat down at a computer to tap out a letter to get 2-month-old Elisha into the Pentagon's day-care program.

At 9:40 a.m., her world exploded into darkness, smoke and a smell that occasionally haunts her at train stations and other unlikely spots. American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon's west side.

Surrounded by people screaming for help, Gallop pulled herself out of the debris despite an injured hip and began a frantic search for her baby, who had stopped crying. She found his limp body under what might have been a wall and, with the help of a few heroes, ferried him to safety. She thought he was dead.

Since then, Gallop has been in rehabilitation and to countless medical appointments for herself and her son — a full-time job, she says. He had a head injury and may suffer developmental problems.

Gallop does not plan to return to the Pentagon. Instead, the Purple Heart recipient wants a medical discharge. If it goes through, maybe she and Elisha will move south to Stafford or Richmond, Va. That seems far enough.

Hunkering down

After the attacks, the city grew quiet. People got religious, escaped to vacation homes or just stayed home glued to CNN.

As days passed, the shock wore off and few retreated. The capital survived. Slowly, people got used to changes in the "new normal," where American flags became window decorations and stamped lapel pins.

This notoriously impatient city has grown tolerant of lines at security checks. We flash our photo IDs more often. And, sometimes, we pay just a little more attention to the person next to us. In a city that puts a premium on openness and democracy, cement is in vogue.

Jersey walls ring the Washington Monument. Oversized planters have sprung up around the Capitol. Many thought they'd seen it all — until yesterday. With the anniversary, anti-aircraft missiles have been stationed at undisclosed locations around the Washington area — a "prudent precaution" that's part of a training exercise, a Pentagon statement said.

Even the jargon has changed.

UBL — shorthand for one spelling of Usama bin Laden — is injected into banter over drinks at happy hour, thanks to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who peppers his daily press briefings with the initials of the world's most wanted terrorist.

And anthrax gave us "The Thrax" and "The Pro," short for Cipro, a drug that hundreds of congressional staff members and postal workers were given to fight the bacteria.

New priorities

One year ago, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card got up in Sarasota, Fla., opened his hotel window and was hit with the smell of dead fish.

That morning, Card was worried about whether President Bush would go for his run in the odiferous air. It was a soft news day — a reading and mentoring event at a nearby school.

Barely hours later, Card broke the news to Bush of disaster in New York. In a now famous whisper, he interrupted the president with a deliberate mix of fact and editorializing.

"A second plane hit the second tower," Card recalled in a recent interview. "America is under attack."

Card, the Secret Service and everyone else who handles Bush scrambled.

"What does a safe environment look like?" Card asked himself after a steep takeoff on Air Force One, a flying fortress.

It's a question that almost everyone in the nation's capital has asked — and Card and countless others here are working for answers.

Like a pot falling off a stove

Among them is Boeing's top lobbyist, Rudy de Leon. He knew of the horror under way in New York as he stood outside a hotel near the Pentagon to meet a colleague.

When de Leon heard the roar of a plane, he thought it was a flyover at Arlington National Cemetery — not a Boeing 767.

A year later, de Leon pauses when he remembers what he heard. The sound of aluminum smashing into concrete wasn't so much an explosion as the clatter of a "pot falling off a stove."

Since then, he has been working on ways to make planes hijack-resistant. And he has been fighting to keep the airlines — and his company — aloft.

A former deputy defense secretary, de Leon has seen his share of devastation on trips to Iraq and Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo. He doesn't answer directly when asked how seeing the collision changed him.

"Our generation has taken for granted that it can travel the world," he said. "To view this tremendous transportation system as a means of attacking the West changed all of our assumptions."

Escape hoods as office supplies

In federal offices, including those of Northwest senators, the new normal is, well, different.

On Capitol Hill, when fire alarms go off, no one sits at their desks. "You are out of the office in no time flat," said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Still fresh are the difficulties caused by the shutdown of the Capitol complex after the anthrax attack.

Now, some federal buildings stock escape hoods for chemical or biological attacks. The crinkly blue plastic devices come complete with a snorkel-like breathing apparatus, a nostril clip and an optional training seminar.

"Sitting there listening to it, it's surreal. You think, 'I never dreamed that I would need chemical-weapons-hood training when I was studying political science in college,' " said Todd Webster, spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Mourning and surviving

In Washington and its suburbs, the most nervous residents squirrel away potassium iodide pills, which doctors say reduce the thyroid gland's ability to absorb radiation. Others choose to live life without the constraints of "what ifs?"

For Molly Laychak Whalen, the loss of Sept. 11 is personal. She lost her brother David. A husband and father of two, David was the peacemaker among his siblings. Aside from being an Army budget analyst and the high-school star quarterback, he knew all the lines to Chris Farley and David Spade's comedy "Tommy Boy." Sometimes, he'd laugh before he could get the jokes out.

Whalen and her husband, a D.C. homicide detective, have considered the worst: that more terror may follow. They keep batteries, bottled water and the tanks half full of gas. If there's another attack, she's supposed to take the kids to West Virginia.

Whalen recognizes that, for some, September 11 didn't have the same impact and that security is a nuisance. She gets a little annoyed when airport-security workers apologize for searching her.

"I'd say, 'Please do not apologize. I lost a brother at the Pentagon. I want you to be doing this,' " she said.

When pressed for details about him, however, Whalen hesitates.

"There are thousands of stories like that from September 11. There are so many deaths, and you don't want to say mine is more than yours," she said. "You don't want anybody to feel sorry for you."

Katherine Pfleger: 206-464-2772 or kpfleger@seattletimes.com.

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