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Friday, September 9, 2011

The Pentagon's Jeweler Remembers 9/11

The Pentagon in January 2008. Photo credit: Wikipedia; Source: the Pentagon; Author, David B. Gleason

While much of the world will be focused at the World Trade Center complex for events in remembrance of the 10th-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Pentagon will hold its own low-key commemoration. One person who will not be attending the Sunday event is Brian Mann, who has spent his entire working life in the building that serves as the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Defense.

About 23,000 military and civilian employees work in the 6.5-million-square-foot structure, considered to be one the world’s largest office buildings by floor area. To service their needs there are host of private companies in the concourse area that include a food court, pharmacies, laundry and dry cleaning services, a florist, a candy store, an electronics store and a barber shop. There’s also a family retail jeweler, David Mann Jewelers.

The retail operation was founded by David Mann in 1945, three years after the Pentagon opened, as a watch repair shop. Over the years the business grew to a full-scale jewelry retail operation. It is now owned and managed by David’s sons, Brian and Conrad. “I’m 57 years old and my brother is a little older,” Brian says. “It’s the only job we’ve ever known.”

The brothers were working in the store as usual on September 11, 2001, when five al-Qaeda operatives hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, en route from Washington Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport, and deliberately crashed it into the west side of the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m.

The brothers’ store is on the southeastern side of the building. They were close enough to the crash site to know that something unusual had happened but far enough away to not know what it was.

Brian says at first he thought it was a construction accident, because that portion of the building was undergoing a renovation. He and brother realized quickly that it was something worse, perhaps a bomb, when they saw people running and were told by the Pentagon police to leave. He says as he was driving away he saw the black smoke from the fire. He was able to get in touch with his wife and son and daughter while in the car driving to his Maryland home, but it was difficult because of all the cell-phone activity.

“There was a lot of confusion at that particular time,” Brian says. “No one knew exactly what happened. It was not until I was able to get in the car and head home hearing it on the radio that it obviously was a plane and it was not a construction mishap.”

A total of 125 people in the building were killed as well as all 64 people on the airplane. Because of the renovation (part of a 12-year upgrade for the entire building) the area was only about 20 percent occupied at the time of the attack.

“It could have been in the other side of the building,” he says. “I think everyone in the building and throughout the world thought about the what ifs and what was going to happen. It affected a lot of people who had friends and relatives (inside the building). We’re just fortunate. It could have been worse and for some it was the ultimate sacrifice.”

They actually opened the shop the next day at the request of then Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld but it quickly became obvious the store and building couldn’t function as if it were a normal day.

“The building was still on fire before we opened by 8 a.m. We were told to close down.”

One of the personal connections he had to someone who died in the attack was with TV commentator and attorney Barbara Olsen, (who was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon). He met Olsen a couple of times through a friend who published some of her books. With a few others, he says he recognizes them as customers.

“There are familiar faces that you would remember who might have come in,” he says. “Face recognition was the most important thing and there were a handful that I recognized.”

Needless to say while David Mann Jeweler is a typical jewelry store, there are some unusual aspects to having a business that serves, almost exclusively, Department of Defense officials and contractors. First are the days and hours of operation. Store hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The shop is closed on weekends and holidays and there are no evening hours. He and his brother begin work at 6:30 a.m. each weekday.

“If you average it all out with a seven-day operation or a six-day operation, (the hours) will equal out,” he says. “You have the benefits of three-day weekend holidays and some not so good benefits. When Christmas falls on a Monday, my last business day is on Friday. For two full days we’re closed. You’ve got to make hay when the sun shines.”

Security has tightened over the years, even before the attack. He used to be able to serve customers who did not have a relationship with the Pentagon, but that gradually ended. Now it is very difficult, only possible with an escort service. However, he does have some impressive clientele, including the past two secretaries of defense (Rumsfeld and Robert Gates).

“Rumsfeld was in the store five days after 9/11,” he says, “a very, very nice gentleman and very well-respected in the building. You just never know who might come in.”

Since the attacks, activity in the Pentagon increased as one would expect during a time of war and security is even tighter. Another change is the store was renovated and relocated to a new space in the concourse. It was the final stage of the long-term renovation program, prior to 9/11. All of these changes were anticipated. However, there has been one unexpected change since the attacks: the level of business for Valentine’s Day.

“A lot of jewelers when it comes to Valentine’s Day, it’s not a big day,” he says. “After 9-11 we call it a mini-Christmas.”

Brian says it’s obvious why the first couple of Valentine’s Days after the attacks were busy but buying jewelry for loved ones on this romantic holiday has morphed into a sort of tradition at the Pentagon.

“I can’t say for sure why, but other than Christmas it’s our busiest day depending upon how the calendar falls,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate that love is in the air in the Pentagon.”

Benches at Pentagon Memorial. Photo credit: VeloBusDriver via Flickr
 
September 11 happens to fall on a Sunday this year, an off day for Brian Mann and that’s just fine with him. He says after 10 years he would rather spend the day as usually does.

“The Pentagon was the first one to have a memorial outside. I’m sure they’ll be things going on that day for the people who want to observe and I’m sure that’s what they will be doing. I’ll certainly think about it but ten years has past and life goes on,” he says. “Let everyone remember in their own way on a very nice Sunday.”

This story also appears on Forbes.com.

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