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A Family's Dreams Gone In an Instant
Devoted Marbury Mom Killed in Pentagon Crash

Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer

September 23, 2001; Page T1

They woke up and got their two children ready for day care. Then they drove to work in separate cars from their Charles County home, following each other during their hour-long commute, just as they did every morning. On the road, Donn Marshall realized he needed gas and flashed his lights at his wife, so she would stop, but she kept going straight to work -- straight to the Pentagon.

Donn was relieved to find her there, waiting for her family outside the day-care center, where they completed the rest of their morning ritual. They said goodbye to Drake and Chandler, allowing their children to see both of them together before they left for the day. Then they turned to each other. It was time for Donn -- a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, just like his wife -- to go to his office in Crystal City. It was time to say goodbye to the woman he couldn't help but notice when he first met her on the job 10 years ago: a pretty brunette with a sparkle in her eyes. But they didn't kiss each other as they had done every other morning. Shelley Marshall had just applied a new coat of lipstick and didn't want to smudge it. She air-kissed him instead.

"I'm going to regret that forever," Donn said last week.

Hours later, after learning that a hijacked plane had plunged into the Pentagon, Donn raced back to the day-care center. He found his children as they were being evacuated, but this time Shelley wasn't there. "As soon as I saw them, I knew something was wrong," he said. "She would have gone straight for them."

It was a routine start to what would turn into one of the deadliest days in the history of the country -- a day that would claim the life of Shelley A. Marshall, a hardworking and devoted mother of two who thought she was working in one of the safest buildings in the world.

But that morning, all the Marshalls could think about was how comfortable they felt. After years of Shelley getting used to a new job and the couple getting used to commuting two hours a day while trying to raise two children and renovating their house, life was finally settling down. "We had some rough times too, but it was getting better," Donn said. "It was going to get even better." Just a year ago, Shelley, 37, switched to a new job as a DIA budget analyst based at the Pentagon. It was a job she loved, a job she worked hard to get and a job she was exceptionally good at, her husband said. "When others would slack off, she did more work," he said.

Shelley grew up in Vienna and graduated from George Mason University. She worked for the DIA for more than a dozen years. She was an administrative officer but worked her way up, thanks to her reputation for being a person of honesty and integrity. Donn was drawn to her from the start. He wanted to become an analyst for the DIA but there weren't any openings at the time. Instead, he got a job in human resources and landed in a cubicle across from Shelley Farr. "She was something else," he said.

Their boss somehow knew that they would be a good match. He asked Shelley what she thought of the new guy. He's okay, she said. That lukewarm response changed within three months. Donn and Shelley started dating and tried to keep their relationship a secret for about three years. "Some people were surprised when they got the wedding invitation," he said.
Theirs was a happy, seven-year marriage. They lived a quiet suburban life. Shelley worked a lot, but when she was home, she enjoyed making scrapbooks, cataloguing her memories. She loved tea, and kept at least 15 kinds in their kitchen. Some weekends, she threw tea parties. Marie Hodges, a clerk at the post office across the street from their house, recalled how she carefully picked out the stamps she wanted to use. "She wanted to put a little personal touch on the invitations," she said. "She was very cheerful." Her mother-in-law, Phyllis Marshall, frequently co-hosted the parties with her. "She was a great mother and a beautiful, beautiful woman," she said. "We were best friends."

Eventually, son Drake, now 3, came along, then daughter Chandler, now 20 months old. Shelley reveled in motherhood and fiercely protected her children. Even if they had Spaghetti-O's for dinner, they had to have broccoli, too, for they had to have their greens, she insisted. After long days at work, she drove an hour home, had dinner with the family, got her children's things ready for day care, and read them to sleep. She was a thoughtful mother. When Drake asked her about death, Shelley went out and bought him a children's book on the subject and read it along with him. She wanted to be the one to teach him about something as important as death.

The Marshalls wanted to raise their children in a big house in a rural community. They chose a fixer-upper on three acres in Marbury. They spent years renovating it. They recently built a patio. On Sept. 8, they had their first cookout of grilled hot dogs on their new patio. They had no idea it would be their last.

The following Tuesday, the couple decided Donn would take the kids in one car. Shelley would lead the way in the other. After losing track of Shelley when he stopped for gas, Donn tried to catch up with her. He decided to try the Burger King. They often stopped there for a quick drive-through breakfast because their children liked the cinnamon breakfast treats. There was no sign of her, but the drive-through attendant said Shelley had just stopped by.

An hour after finding her at the Pentagon, and saying what would turn out to be their final goodbyes, Donn was sitting at his desk in his office when his wife called. Two planes had just hit the World Trade Center in New York, she told him. Yes, yes, he responded. He had already heard and he was trying to find out more about it and would call her back. Ten minutes later, a co-worker called to tell him that the Pentagon was on fire. A hijacked plane had plunged into it.

Donn raced over there, found the children and took them to Shelley's parents' house in Vienna. Then he returned to the Pentagon to search for his wife. He walked all around the building. He stopped at the triage center. He went to where the media was stationed. Maybe they would know something, he thought. But no luck there, either. hen he thought that maybe she was still in her office, badly hurt and waiting for someone to rescue her. He knew where her office was -- in the fifth corridor of the first floor -- but the damaged areas were quickly becoming restricted. He was determined to figure out a way to get close to it. His opportunity came when a pickup truck rolled up with supplies. He grabbed some. It was his ticket inside the security perimeter. When rescuers asked for stretchers, he picked one up and got even closer to the wreckage. Finally, he was there, staring at the door leading into the fifth corridor of the second floor, standing in a smoldering mess, just feet away from where his wife worked. He wanted to go in. He asked to go in. But the military commanders wouldn't let him. All he could do was wait -- for four hours -- as the number of missing people kept climbing. Finally, he decided to go back to his in-laws' house to be with his children.

That night, he began working the phones with Shelley's two younger brothers. For the next three days, they called the Department of Defense, the FBI and local politicians to try to get information. "We would get two pieces of bad news and the one little reason to hope, and then the reason to hope would disappear," he said. They asked the Department of Defense the same question over and over again: How close were the searchers getting to Shelley's office? That simple question went unanswered for days, he said. A phone call to the FBI produced no clues either. Donn became frustrated with them. He now believes that searchers, at the behest of the FBI, spent too much time looking for the black box of the plane instead of searching for possible survivors.

Donn was left to spend part of those days at his mother's house in West Virginia, thinking of all the what-ifs. What if the plane had crashed into the Pentagon two days later, when Shelley was scheduled to move to an office on the other side of the building? What if he had talked to her when she called that last time and told her that he loved her, instead of rushing her off the phone and saying he would call her back? And what if the plane had plunged into the building 100 feet higher, where the day-care center that his children were in was located? He doesn't consider himself religious, but Donn believes that some divine intervention kept that plane from crashing into the day-care center. His children were spared instead of Shelley. "If it came down to a choice, I know what choice she would make," he said.

Neighbors and relatives had just started lighting candles for a vigil when the phone rang the evening of Sept. 14. It was the call Donn was dreading. Shelley was gone, said the voice on the other end. He went back to the vigil and didn't say a word. He didn't want to announce it to everyone. Not like that. His son asked him what was wrong. "It was rough and I was out there crying and my son was asking why and I had to tell him everything was okay," he recalled. After the vigil, he called relatives into the house and told them the news one by one. The hardest part was helping his children understand it when he didn't even understand it himself. "I go between anger at the stupidity and the futility of the whole thing and feelings of guilt, and I just miss her," he said. He told his son that his mother would not be returning. She would be going to heaven instead, he said. "Why?" Drake asked. I don't know, his father told him. Donn told him he could still talk to her. She will hear him, he told his son, even if she can't respond. His son seems to have quietly accepted it. His daughter, he fears, will never remember Shelley.

Donn Marshall has been spending a lot of time thinking about plans for the future he had made with his wife. They had bought airplane tickets for London in November. It would have been her first trip to Europe. They were going to go to his Hampden-Sydney College reunion to meet the families of all his former college buddies. But now, "I don't know what we're going to do," he said. All he knows is that he will hold a memorial service for Shelley. And he will follow it with a tea party. He also will create story hours at local libraries in her honor. He plans to keep her memory alive, any way he can.

Just last weekend, he returned to the Pentagon to pick up her car. He had left it there, hoping that somehow she would get out and drive it home herself. He sat in her seat. Resting in the cup holder was a Burger King coffee cup with some of that lipstick she had applied before he said farewell to her.

He plans to hold on to that cup for the rest of his life.

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