A plush-toy dinosaur and small, cuddly bear recently acquired by the 9/11 Memorial Museum serve as stand-ins for the two sisters who had been their affectionate caretakers: 8-year-old Zoe Falkenberg, and her 3-year-old sister, Dana Falkenberg. The girls were passengers aboard hijacked Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.
One imagines them boarding the plane at Dulles Airport early that Tuesday morning with excitement, shepherded by their parents, Charles Falkenberg and Leslie Whittington. They may have noticed three older children among the 58 passengers at the departure gate: a trio of sixth graders from Washington, D.C., each accompanied by a teacher escort. This particular group of travelers was heading to the Santa Barbara area of southern California as part of a National Geographic–sponsored trip to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
The Falkenberg sisters were also embarking on an adventure. Their parents, having just sold their family home in suburban Washington, D.C., were bound for Australia, where Leslie, a Georgetown University economist, would be pursuing a semester’s research fellowship at Australian National University in Canberra. The girls’ father, Charles, had taken leave from his job as a software engineer so the family could experience this special sojourn together. Boarding pass assignments indicate the Falkenberg-Whittington family as occupying Row 23, with Charles in seat A at the window, Zoe in the middle, and Dana on the aisle. Their mother was situated across from them in seat 23D.
Around 8:54 a.m., the transcontinental flight deviated from its course. Its transponder was turned off soon thereafter. At this point, the hijackers were in command, herding the passengers and flight attendants, including the Falkenberg-Whittingtons, to the back of the aircraft. Fate then took its horrifying course.
Born in University Park, Md., both sisters had defined personalities endearing them to family, friends, neighbors and playmates. Their individuality still animates the obituaries published about them after their deaths 18 years ago. Zoe, a Girl Scout and devotee of the Harry Potter books, was a flourishing student at University Park Elementary School. Curly-haired Dana enjoyed nursery school and was taking swimming lessons at a local YMCA. The girls had assembled stuffed animal collections, Zoe having reached the Beanie Baby stage of collecting. Most of their toys had been consigned to storage in anticipation of the family’s stay abroad. Upon returning from Australia, a new house awaited them in Chevy Chase, where the girls presumably would be restaging that menagerie.
Awaiting this reunion were these two members of that flock: Zoe’s aquamarine-hued Dad Dinosaur, wearing a tie, protectively cradling its tangerine-colored offspring, and Dana’s Teddy Bear, sporting a jaunty red bowtie. They resurfaced in the Falkenberg-Whittington’s Maryland-stored belongings after 9/11. The toys—adopted by the children’s grandfather, Dr. Horace C. Whittington—were in his custody at the time of his death, in Arizona, in 2015. His widow, Natalie Whittington, had married Dr. Whittington after 2001 and thus had no direct acquaintance with the victims. Upon finding the toys, she set them aside for the Museum, and reflected that her late husband may have preserved them for sentimental reasons, as keepsakes of his cherished granddaughters.
After their receipt, the Museum contacted one of the girls’ aunts to see if she remembered these particular stuffed animals. She didn’t, but speculated that her father might have given them to his granddaughters. Although the dinosaur and bear were not chosen to accompany the girls to Australia, apparently they had taken some favorite cuddly toys onto the plane with them. After the fatal crash, an FBI investigator told the bereaved family that on the Dulles airport surveillance film, he had spotted Dana carrying an Elmo character doll. Some of Zoe’s trove of Beanie Babies were also noted as missing from storage after her death, suggesting that she had taken them with her on the plane.
The Dinosaur and Bear are now companions in perpetuity in the Museum’s collection, memorializing the loss on 9/11 of eight young people under the age of 12, denied the right to pursue their lives and dreams beyond childhood.
By Jan Seidler Ramirez, Executive Vice President of Collections and Chief Curator, 9/11 Memorial & Museum