Health & Medicine

A Sept. 11 widower's final trip

Floyd Rasmussen worked at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, as did his first wife, Rhonda, who died in the attack. He later married Brenda. The couple attended the 10th anniversary events this month.
Floyd Rasmussen worked at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, as did his first wife, Rhonda, who died in the attack. He later married Brenda. The couple attended the 10th anniversary events this month. WASHINGTON POST

Floyd Rasmussen, a dying man, flew across the country from his Vancouver, Wash., home earlier this month to attend the Pentagon's 9/11 ceremonies. It was a risky trip. He had renal failure and could survive only through dialysis. He'd been going downhill in recent days. His wife, Brenda, wasn't sure he'd make it to Arlington, Va.

On the plane, he had trouble breathing. But he soldiered on. He was determined to participate in the 10th anniversary events if it was the last thing he ever did.

Floyd's wife of 27 years, Rhonda Sue Rasmussen, an Army budget analyst, died when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon close to her first-floor cubicle. Floyd, working two floors away, evacuated the building unharmed.

Years later, Floyd still found it hard to discuss Rhonda, with whom he had four children. But this summer he agreed to share his story with The Washington Post. The article about the Rasmussens ran in a special section of the paper devoted to nine lives changed by 9/11.

His was a love story that didn't follow the usual script. When Rhonda died, Floyd descended into depression. He'd already been sick, with heart disease, and Rhonda had vowed to take care of him to the end of his days. As Mormons, they viewed themselves as sealed for eternity. Floyd in his desperation eventually began searching online for someone like Rhonda.

He found that person, Brenda Barnum, a red-headed Mormon who looked strikingly like Rhonda. They married, but it was no fairy tale: Brenda realized that Floyd wanted her to be like Rhonda. They had to work through that and build a relationship in which Floyd fully accepted Brenda as Brenda.

They succeeded, with help from counseling. Both felt their relationship had improved. Brenda said she was happier now.

Said Floyd, "You take two rough objects and rub them together, they both end up smooth." Brenda became the curator of Rhonda's letters and photographs. She hoped to donate a kidney to Floyd before he turned 70 next summer. They had to undergo tests before that could happen.

Floyd and Brenda spoke with unusual candor about their struggles. At the end of a series of interviews, Floyd described the key elements of his story, as he saw it: "The loss. Love regained. And its growth."

When the article appeared, old friends contacted Floyd. He arranged to see some of them when he and Brenda, invited by the Pentagon to participate in the 9/11 ceremonies, made the trip to Virginia on Sept. 9.

It was a risky journey. Floyd needed dialysis three times a week. The alarm clock would ring at 4:45 a.m., and by 5:08 he and Brenda would be out the door, headed to Portland, Wash., to the Veterans Affairs hospital and the dialysis ward. Brenda would nap in a chair while a large machine filtered Floyd's blood for six hours. At noon they'd head home.

If he didn't have dialysis, the toxins would build up. Even with the treatment, Floyd had good days and bad days, clear-headed moments and fuzzy moments. He figured he had only a few years to live.

The trip East would mean missing a dialysis treatment. One day shortly before they left home, Floyd said to Brenda, "So, let's say you wake up and you roll over and I've died. What's the first thing you do?"

Brenda said, "Freak out."

"No," he said. He went through a list of things he wanted Brenda to do. "Be calm," he said. The trip had to be a bit of a mad dash, less than 72 hours on the ground.

On the morning of Sept. 11 at the Pentagon memorial service they met the vice president and his wife, and the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There was a second event in the afternoon, a wreath-laying by the president. The day was so warm that Floyd and Brenda decided to change into casual clothes. Floyd picked out a Hawaiian shirt, a Magnum P.I. look. Brenda knew that they would meet the president and worried that Floyd had dressed too informally.

"He's from Hawaii, it's OK. He'll feel at home," Floyd answered.

They met the president and first lady — "She is stunning!" Floyd said afterward. They spent time at the bench that bears the name of Rhonda Sue Rasmussen. They also visited the tomb where unidentified remains of Pentagon victims have been interred.

On the flight home, Floyd once again had trouble breathing. But he was thrilled by the trip. "He wouldn't have changed anything," Brenda said.

Sept. 13 was an unusually good day for him; he had a burst of clarity. He spoke to his mother, Alice, and to other family members and friends.

Late that afternoon he chatted for more than an hour with a high school buddy, Dick Teubner. They hadn't spoken since right after 9/11. They reminisced about their youth, about living together after graduation from Pacific High School in San Bernardino, Calif. They discussed the terrorists, and Floyd said he no longer felt any need for vengeance, no longer felt hatred for the men who had blown a hole in his life.

"He was at peace with everything," Teubner said.

When the alarm rang at 4:45 a.m. Sept. 14, Floyd did not stir. He had died in his sleep during the night.

"He told his story. He got to visit her again. And he got to meet the president, and the president cared," Brenda said Wednesday afternoon, sounding calm as she spoke by phone. "He finally got to the end of his journey. He got his release."

Floyd, a Vietnam veteran, will be interred in Arlington National Cemetery on Oct. 17, Brenda said, a day before what would have been Rhonda's 55th birthday.

"They're going to put him as close to her as they can get him."