Relatives try to move on with lives

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

WASHINGTON -- A grandfather who lost two generations of family pursues legal action against those he holds responsible. Four cats, two college students and a baby help one woman fill the void created by her partner's death. A man starts a new life without his wife.

Five months have passed since the terrorist attack on the Pentagon killed 189 people -- 125 inside the five-sided fortress and all 64 on the American Airlines jetliner that was flown into it.

The loved ones left behind think back to the extra family time they wish they'd had. Concentrating at work has proved too daunting for one. Another has recaptured her sense of humor out of the profound sadness.

"If you can't laugh at life you might as well check out," says Peggy Neff, "and I'm not ready to check out yet."

Here's a look at how three people affected by the Sept. 11 Pentagon crash, on a day when more than 3,000 died in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, are coping with their loss.

'That's the big regret'

H.G. Whittington says "it's better to fight than to whimper."

And the 73-year-old Houston psychiatrist is taking his own advice.

Whittington is among a group of relatives suing American and United airlines and two airport security companies, claiming they failed to adequately protect passengers from the hijackers.

He lost four loved ones -- two generations of family -- on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

His daughter Leslie, 45; son-in-law Charles Falkenberg, 45; and daughters Zoe, 8, and Dana, 3, were on their way to Los Angeles on the first leg of a trip to Australia.

They lived in University Park, Md., and Ms. Whittington taught public policy at Georgetown University. She was to be a visiting fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Like many people in his situation, Whittington wishes he'd seen more of his daughter's family. The last time was in the summer of 2000 at a family reunion in Colorado.

"That's the big regret, of course," he says.

Whittington hopes the lawsuit will force changes that could protect others. He doesn't care that he will be excluded from a fund the government created to compensate relatives of those killed or injured in the attacks. The money is only for those who forfeit the rights to sue.

"I think the fund is hush money to try and let everybody go away and let the airlines go on with business as usual," he says.

'Pretend to be normal'

Peggy Neff lost Sheila Hein, her partner of almost 18 years. A house with four cats, two college students, a newborn and a turtle are keeping her busy.

Three years ago, the couple agreed to take in a pair of cats owned by a friend's daughter, who was moving into a University of Maryland dorm near their home in Hyattsville, Md. That made four.

A year later, the girl moved in with Hein and Neff.

Then her boyfriend joined them.

They had their baby girl in December. "I guess the moral is never take in anyone's cats," jokes Neff.

With each month, it gets easier to deal with the death of Hein, 51, an Army budget and management specialist who was at the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

But, "as the parent of one of the victims said, 'I get up every morning and pretend to be normal. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't,"' says Neff, 54.

Neff hasn't worked for pay since the end of November. The week before the attack, she gave notice at her laboratory job after finishing real estate school and passing the licensing exam.

She does not want to sue, saying "That is not a battle I choose to fight."

Since she wasn't related to Hein by blood or marriage, Neff also wants to find out whether she qualifies for federal compensation. Final details on how that money will be awarded haven't been worked out.

She plans to take a few months to file the paperwork to settle Hein's estate and to visit with Hein's mother in Springfield, Mass., before deciding her next move.

But it will not be out of Maryland. "I'm in our home and I'm going to stay there as long as I can," Neff says.

Volunteer work

Stephen Push is moving on with life, but memories of the attack are right there with him.

"It's still something that I think about every day. It's still very fresh," says Push.

Lisa Raines, his wife of 21 years, was a passenger on the flight.

Three weeks after the attack, Push went back to work as director of corporate communications for a biotechnology company. But he couldn't stay focused, and went on leave.

Push, 50, of Great Falls, Va., is now retired and living off savings. He spends his free time volunteering for Families of September 11, an advocacy-support group for which he is treasurer.

He's also become such a familiar face on Capitol Hill that his Rolodex now includes personal telephone numbers for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. James Moran, D-Va., two key contacts on post-Sept. 11 matters.

Push says he's more functional now than in the weeks after the attack, but is still gripped by "periods of intense grief and pain."

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