Defense honors construction workers who rebuilt Pentagon

The Defense Department honored its reconstruction hardhat patriots on Wednesday afternoon, calling them American heroes in a special ceremony that marked their round-the-clock labors to rebuild the Pentagon in one year.

"We promised with the eyes of the nation upon us to rebuild," said Lee Evey, program manager of the Pentagon renovation project, to a crowd of thousands of construction workers and their families at a ceremony to thank the workers for their hard work. Two million square feet of office space were destroyed when terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. "Today, we are delivering on that promise [to rebuild]," Evey said. "We are back in business…America, we give you back your Pentagon."

Paul Wolfowitz, deputy Defense secretary, told the workers that they were all heroes. "Your sweat and sacrifice does great honor to the men and women we lost here a year ago, and in the days since," he said.

About 3,000 of the 4,600 Pentagon workers who were displaced last fall have already moved back into the building, including employees in the outermost ring of the building that sustained the brunt of the attack. Originally, construction and demolitions experts said it would take months just to remove 50,000 tons of debris from the site and years before the Pentagon would rise again. Not only was the project largely finished ahead of schedule, but it was under budget, coming in at more than $200 million less than the initial $740 million estimate.

Evey called the project's managers and construction workers "quite average Americans" who set a goal and then became caught up in the challenge of achieving it. "They have proved once again that as Americans, we can achieve anything we set our minds to," he said.

The afternoon's sun-speckled ceremony was a marked contrast to the more solemn ceremony held earlier in the day at the same location to remember those killed at the Pentagon a year ago. The morning's crowd of victim's families and friends, many lawmakers and dozens of senior civilian military leaders gave way to a celebratory crowd of more than a thousand construction crew members wearing hard hats and carrying their children who waved flags and belted out "God Bless America" as the ceremony ended. Afterwards, many workers posed for pictures with their families in front of the rebuilt Pentagon.

Evey noted the many of the construction workers were immigrants, representing more than 30 nations, and won applause from the crowd for spending a few minutes thanking them in Spanish for their efforts. Evey said many workers had overcome great obstacles to come to America, such as escaping Vietnam on boats; fleeing communism in Europe as teenagers and surviving work camps as children in Poland. "When people such as this are moved, things happen and things happened very quickly [here]," Evey added.

Evey, who had no prior construction experience before taking over as head of the renovation project five years ago, will retire in the next few weeks after more than 30 years of federal service. Wolfowitz praised Evey for inspiring the workers and said they have repaid his strong leadership with incredible performance. "You will be very hard to replace," said Wolfowitz.

The new white-limestone façade of the Pentagon may have been the most visible sign of the workers' commitment. But off to the side of the stage from which speakers addressed the crowd was another sign that was put up last fall that sent a similar message. The sign read "Let's Roll" and displayed an electronic clock that counted down the days, hours and minutes until the worker's deadline of Sept. 11, 2002. On Wednesday, that clock was turned off.