Sept. 11 attacks still claim lives

The Baltimore Sun

She was supposed to be one of the lucky ones, a woman who made it out of the Pentagon alive as hijackers took over American Airlines Flight 77 and came crashing into it.

But though Marcie Bents survived the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the emotional impact transformed her into a traumatized and reclusive woman who, family members said, finally lost the will to live.

Bents, 48, was found dead in her Severna Park home Tuesday morning.

The cause of her death remains unknown pending the completion of an autopsy.

But family members say there is no doubt that the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks destroyed the once happy-go-lucky woman, who ended up taking medical leave from her job while she holed up her in house, watching CNN and fretting about bombs and planes and even Muslim-looking taxi drivers.

"Little by little, it destroyed her," said Bents' sister, Kathy Gonce, 56, of Severna Park. "She was afraid 24-7. She couldn't sleep. She would dream of the Pentagon attacks again and again, and tanks flying over her house and dropping bombs. She never felt safe going anywhere.

Bents, an information technology specialist, was in her second-floor office of the Pentagon on Sept. 11 when the fireball burst into the building and about 15 of her co-workers died, said her brother, Steve Bents, 59, of Crofton.

She and a colleague worked their way through the dark building, feeling for the few cool walls and stepping over bodies as they gasped for air in the smoke-filled building.

Physically, she suffered minor injuries, burns to the back of her head and hair, and scratches and bruises.

But the real injuries set in over time. By the third anniversary of Sept. 11, Bents was afraid to take the Metro or drive - fearing terrorist attacks or bombs hitting her car. She wouldn't even take taxis, fearful that the South Asian drivers were terrorists.

In late 2004, Bents was granted a medical leave. "She just gradually got worse," said Shirley Boren, her supervisor at the Pentagon. "She was fearful of riding the Metro and things like that. She was depressed. She had issues, emotional issues."

Bents was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and an anxiety disorder, family members said. She was seeing doctors and taking various medications. Nothing seemed to help.

She became angry, fixated on all things dealing with the terrorist attacks.

Bents hung in her house a diagram showing where the plane crashed in proximity to her office, a constant reminder.

When she went to her sister's house for Easter, the family made sure to close all the curtains and windows, hoping to muffle the sound of nearby aircraft flying into BWI Marshall Airport.

When she went to an arts and crafts class with her sister and someone knocked over a trash can in the next room, she started screaming, thinking it was an attack.

"She eventually just locked herself in the house with the windows closed," said her brother. "It got so bad, she wouldn't leave the house to see the psychiatrist," whom she was required to see on a monthly basis to receive her workers' compensation.

Bents' financial situation became so severe that her mother, Margaret Bents, had to refinance her home to help her, and the family eventually sought the help of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's office to aid them in receiving back pay.

The cumulative affect of stress and anxiety led to various complications, Gonce said. Bents couldn't sleep. She developed high blood pressure. She had high cholesterol and then was diagnosed with diabetes.

Support group and medical experts say her emotional troubles are not uncommon among the attacks' survivors, a group who has suffered on the sidelines.

Dr. Mandeep R. Mehra, head of cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said there is a clear link between anxiety and depressive symptoms and heart complications, as well as nervous system dysfunction.

"Years of anxiety and behavior modification, like depressive symptoms, ... can in fact lead to inflammation, which can affect the heart in many ways and has been associated with worse outcomes like a heart attack," Mehra said.

Born in Baltimore, Bents graduated from Friendly High School in Prince George's County.

She was vivacious and a party-goer, a woman who loved her animals, her nieces and nephew, and her son, Matthew Zimmerman, 20, who lived with her, family members said.

"She was like a big kid," said Steve Bents.

Bents worked in government service for 28 years, beginning as a clerk and getting trained in information technology. She began working as a civilian employee for the Army in 1995.

The Sept. 11 attacks killed 125 people in the Pentagon. Many more escaped with injuries, visible or not.

Stephanie Berkowitz, director of the Survivors' Fund Project, works with victims of the Pentagon tragedy. "What you described is not an uncommon occurrence," said Berkowitz, who works at the Northern Virginia Family Service, which provides case management support for the project.

Berkowitz said that even now, more than five years later, people are just coming to them for help. About one-third of their clients are evacuees.

"For the evacuees, the emotional issues are tremendous," she said. "Most are having some symptoms of stress related to the drama."

Duane Bowers, a counselor who has worked with Pentagon evacuees, said a delayed reaction to the attacks is normal. He said "trigger events" such as the smell of jet fuel, which permeated the Pentagon that day, can provoke feelings of anxiety and dread.

"They experience feelings of dread, doom, depression and high anxiety," Bowers said. "Nightmares are common."

April Gallop knows. The Virginia resident, an executive administrative specialist for the Army, was also in the Pentagon on that day.

She made it out with various physical injuries, such as a hip fracture and spine misalignment. She, too, was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gallop went on medical leave in 2003, but getting financial assistance has been a constant battle, she said.

"They didn't make it easy for injured survivors," said Gallop, who knew Bents. "We're not on the radar. It's almost like, because you lived, you're being punished."

For Bents' family, the effects of Sept. 11 will hover over them today as they bury her at Glen Haven Memorial Park in Glen Burnie.

"You never see anything about the survivors," Gonce said. "You never see the ones who walked over those bodies, that were hit by a fireball, and what they and their families have been going through since then. It's horrible.

"It killed her. It just absolutely killed her."

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