Nine-year-old Zachary Laychak walked into his house after school one day to a house full of family and friends.
A fire had broken out at the Pentagon, they told him calmly, and they were waiting to hear from his father, who worked there as a civilian budget analyst for the Army. He felt a twinge of concern, but quickly dismissed the thought that something bad had happened.
"He'll be fine," Laychak thought. "He always is."
Two days later, two men came to deliver the devastating news: 40-year-old David Laychak was one of the 184 people who had died Sept. 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. It was nearly a decade ago, he said, but the moment remains vivid.
His mother sat him and his 7-year-old sister down and told them their father had been killed. They screamed and sobbed as the news sunk in.
"I remember my mom saying it was the hardest thing she'd ever had to tell," said Laychak, now a 19-year-old college student. "For me, at least initially, I felt disbelief. I couldn't understand how it could happen."
As Laychak struggled to come to terms with his loss, Americans struggled to comprehend the extent of damage to the nation. Terrorists had taken nearly 3,000 innocent lives here and in New York and Pennsylvania. They destroyed and damaged buildings and shook the nation's sense of security to its core.
But to a 9-year-old who had just lost his dad, the attacks weren't a national incident; they were a personal affront.
"I couldn't understand what would make someone want to do this to my dad," Laychak said. "I was just angry, so mad." The attacks, he added, changed the course of his life forever.
He lost, not only his father, he said, but also his best friend. Bonded by a love of sports, his father, a former college football player, would rush home each day so they could toss a football out in the front yard. His dad coached every sport he played, he added, whether it was basketball, baseball or lacrosse.
Laychak could hardly believe his strong, capable father was gone, he said. He recalled leaving his house that afternoon and heading over to a friend's house across the street for a sleepover. He woke up at around 6 a.m. and peeked out the window at his house. Relief washed over him when he saw his dad's car parked in the driveway. He later found out his aunt had driven his dad's car home.
In the wake of his dad's death, Laychak tucked his feelings
aside to focus on his family. He assumed the "man of the house"
role to take care of his mother and sister, he said.
"It definitely made me mature a lot quicker," he said. "I figured things out on my own and tried to just be there for my mom and sister."
But along with this maturity came a growing sense of isolation. He felt like an oddity at school and was flooded with questions upon his return. Close friends shielded him, he said, in a surprising show of maturity for a group of 4th graders he had met less than a year earlier.
As time passed, his initial anger evolved into a deep sense of patriotism -- born of resentment against those who dared to attack his nation and his family.
"I became a fan of us fighting these battles overseas," Laychak said. "It made me proud that America didn't just let the attacks happen [without responding]."
He also focused on keeping his father's memory alive. He bought a silver bracelet engraved with his father's name, which he rarely takes off. And whatever sport he plays, he wears the No. 4 in honor of his father, who wore that number when he played football at Brown University.
His house is strewn with pictures of his dad in his college uniform, along with a framed No. 4 jersey given to him from his dad's alma mater.
Laychak now is establishing college memories of his own. He's studying communications at the University of Arizona and plans to pursue a job with a sports organization. He even chose the college in memory of his father, he said, who took him to sports events when they lived in the area.
He's also heavily involved with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization for military families of the fallen, as well as Tuesday's Children, an organization that provides support for children of 9/11 and others impacted by global terrorism.
Laychak's uncle, Jim Laychak, also is intent on keeping alive the memory of his brother, as well as all victims of the Pentagon attack. He spearheaded the fundraising and creation of the Pentagon Memorial, a serene spot next to the Pentagon that features an engraved bench for each of the 184 people killed there.
The years have soothed much of his anger related to that day, Zach Laychak said. Still, he rejoices in each victory in the war on terrorism.
One of the happiest moments he's had since his father's death, he said, was when Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was killed in May.
"I felt pure joy and happiness," he said. "I had friends from high school calling me. Even they knew it was something important to me."
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 draws near, Laycheck said he'll remember his father with love and pride.
"As terrible as this whole situation was, I know he was a very patriotic person and that he died serving his country," he said. "That's a way he would have been proud to go."
Elaine Sanchez is a writer for American Forces Press Service.