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D.C. mourns its loss

Community celebrates lives of students, teachers

who died aboard ill-fated flight

(Published September 24, 2001)


Staff Writer

At two memorial services on Sept. 13, thousands of students, teachers, parents and government officials mourned the loss of three 11-year-old D.C. Public Schools students and three veteran teachers who lost their lives Sept. 11 in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

More than 1,000 people gathered at Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia to mourn as well as celebrate the lives of the deceased through dancing, singing, biblical readings, and shouting of praises to God.

Lost in the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, when terrorist hijackers crashed the jetliner on which they were passengers, were Bernard Brown Jr. and sixth grade teacher Hilda Taylor of Leckie Elementary School, Rodney Dickens and fifth grade teacher James Debueneure of Ketcham Elementary School, and Asia Cottom and sixth grade teacher Sarah Clark of Backus Middle School.

The students and their teachers were heading for California on American Airlines Flight 77 for a geology trip sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. The students were all competitively selected to participate in the National Marine Sanctuary Program, which would include marine monitoring exercises, and hiking and kayaking to several study areas over several days.

The emotional and tearful Leckie Elementary School principal, Clementine Homesley, remembered Brown and Taylor as "our angelic heroic angels."

"Itís hard to say what our hearts feel at this time ... and I want you to know that they are heroes in our lives and they will forever remain in our hearts," she said.

At one point in the service, Homesley, close to tears, needed support to continue.

"Can I see the family? I need your strength," she said, to which approximately 100 students and teachers from Leckie stood in support.

In closing, Homesley said that earlier that school day, in an effort to help studentsí deal with their grief, the students were given the opportunity to express their feelings through art therapy, poetry, drawings, any of the ways they felt they needed to.

Of the many cards, poems and artworks that Leckie students created, Homesley was touched by one studentís words, which she said captured the essence of the deceased.

"Youíre just too good to be gone," was one studentís expression about the loss of Brown and Taylor that Homesley shared with the congregation before returning to her seat.

Ketcham Elementary School Principal Romaine Thomas paid tribute to Dickens and Debueneure.

The upbeat Thomas remembered Dickens as an honor student.

"Rodney was indeed an extraordinary student. He was willing to learn...He was always eager to take on any challenge. So we are indeed very, very sad that we lost one of our shining stars," Thomas said.

Thomas gave Debueneure the highest accolades.

"He was one of my finest teacher. He was highly committed, highly dedicated to children throughout this community and throughout the city. He was willing to go the extra mile to bring an extra opportunity to youngsters to see that they could have the appropriate resources to grow and learn in all of the kinds of ways in which we want children to mature," she said.

Spanish teacher Mary Smoot, who taught Dickens last year, remembered him as "very quiet" and "conscientious about his work."

"He was a good student. He was never a problem," she said.

Smoot was also a friend of Debueneure, whose classroom was across the hall from hers. She said they often talked, prayed and shared their faith with each other in the teacherís lounge.

However, like Thomas, her best memory of Debueneure was his dedication to children.

"If I didnít love children, I wouldnít put up with all of this," Smoot recalled Debueneure telling her.

Debueneure also seemed to be loved and appreciated by the students. Last year Debueneureís fifth-grade students had T-shirts made with pictures of themselves and Debeuneure featured on them, Smoot said.

Assistant Superintendent David Mason paid tribute to Cottom and Clark of Backus Middle School. Mason and the mourners in unison offered their prayers, love and support to the families of the deceased.

Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said the teachers and students who died in the Pentagon attack "will forever be the vehicles through which we in the public school system remain committed to teach against hatred and violence."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, Board of Education member William Lockridge and former mayor Marion Barry also offered their condolences.

D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Paul L. Vance encouraged the congregation not to live in fear and to commit themselves, their energies, will and spirit so that they will not be defeated.

"The world we want for children and our future is a world that must be ruled by knowledge, wisdom, love, respect, peace and faith. And the world where the kindness of the human spirit triumphs over all...then and only then will we know that our beloved ones did not die in vain," he said.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator