SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. (WDVM) — The last time Donn Marshall spoke to his wife was right after the first plane hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
“She called around 20 minutes before the plane hit the Pentagon,” said Donn, a current resident of Shepherdstown. “I was talking to her and we were comparing notes and — you know, I’m an analyst — I kind of rushed off the phone so I could go find out what was going on.”
Over 100 people died when hijackers crashed into the western side of the Pentagon. One of them was Donn’s wife, Shelley Marshall, who was working during the attack.
The couple’s two children, Drake and Chandler, were being cared for at the Pentagon daycare center that day, while Donn was less than three miles away in Crystal City. After speeding through the streets, Donn reached the daycare and found his children.
“It was contradictions. It was the happiest day of my life because I found the kids and they were okay,” said Donn. “And then, just like that, it became the worst day of my life because I knew that Shelley should have been there … If the plane had hit two days later, she wouldn’t even have been on that side of the building. [And] you could tell that things were different on [the other] side of the building because the windows didn’t break, they melted.”
Donn — who at the time was a senior intelligence officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency — brought the kids to his parents and set off to find Shelley. Several hours after the attack, he was able to enter the Pentagon to help evacuate survivors.
“I remember, they taught us how to pick up burn victims. And they told us to leave the bodies where we saw them because it was a crime scene,” said Donn. “And I was like, ‘it’s not [a] crime scene. This is an act of war.'”
Donn didn’t find his wife that day. It took three days of waiting and holding onto hope before he got the call confirming his fears.
Donn broke the news to his and Shelley’s parents. “That was probably the worst part of the whole thing, was having to tell people. Seeing that hope go away.”
The next day he told his son, Drake, who was only about 3 years old at the time, what had happened to his mother.
“I said, ‘I have to tell you that mommy is not coming home … God needed another angel. So she’s up there, and she can hear you if you want to say anything.’ And he said, ‘I love you, mommy,'” Donn said, smiling slightly at the bittersweet memory.
His daughter, Chandler, who was only 20 months old at the time of the attack, was too young to really know her mother. But Donn made sure that while Chandler was growing up, every time the wind blew, she knew she was feeling her mother’s love.
“Later, I told the kids that that was mommy blowing them kisses,” Donn said. “And I remember one time Chandler — it was really windy — and we were walking along and I was carrying her. And she’s like, ‘you know, I wish mommy wouldn’t kiss me so hard.'”
Donn met Shelley in 1990. Four years later, they would get married. While it has now been twenty years since she passed, he says the love he feels for her doesn’t feel confined to their time together.
“It doesn’t feel like two decades. 2012 was the year that was kind of, I think, a harder year for me because I knew Shelley for 11 years of my life. And after 2012, she was gone for more years than I knew her.”
The Marshall family moved to Shepherdstown two years after Shelley’s death. It’s where he built the place he now calls home, and where he met his current wife, Heather.
“Being here has made all the difference in those 20 years,” said Donn. “Just the friends, the people who supported us, the community that we’ve been able to become a part of … I had no idea how much stress I had been under after 9/11 in terms of the kids and their safety.”
Donn said the way Americans came together after the tragedy of that day is something he will always remember. In this current era of battling the COVID-19 pandemic and deep divisions among Americans, he said he hopes the country can come together to protect one another like they did 20 years ago.
“Ultimately, 9/11 — whatever the anniversary — is about Shelley and about the people who died and lost their lives and how amazing they were.”
Donn Marshall continues to work for the Department of Defense to this day, dedicating his time to preventing incidents like this from ever happening again.