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Craig D. Bell was working in his Richmond, Va., office on the evening of Sept. 13 when his phone rang. It was the Pentagon. Bell is the chairman of tax litigation at McGuireWoods, a 600-lawyer firm. He is also a lieutenant colonel and judge advocate general (JAG) in the U.S. Army Reserves. After the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, defense officials cleared out a nearby Sheraton hotel to create the Pentagon Family Assistance Center for the families of its 188 dead. Into the hotel flowed a panoply of military, government and aid organizations to brief and console them. But what was needed most was lawyers to guide the survivors through a thicket of legal issues, from accessing a dead spouse’s bank account to determining child custody to finalizing an estate. What they needed, military officials realized, was Bell. “We really didn’t have a clue what we were walking into,” says Bell, 44. When he left on Sept. 15 from Richmond, he was still planning on taking his wife out for her 44th birthday dinner that night. He hadn’t packed any clothes — not even a toothbrush. “We thought we were going to be there for a day,” he remembers, “but then we never came back.” Reservists spend a weekend every month shooting, marching and drilling. Bell, on the other hand, heads the Complex Estate Planning Team, part of the 55-lawyer 10th Legal Support Organization in Upper Marlboro, Md. “When they drill, they are actually doing real work — a real will, a real environmental impact statement, a real court-martial,” says Bell’s commanding officer, Robert C. Erickson, a colonel in the Army Reserves and a federal prosecutor. He says it’s not unusual that Pentagon brass decided to tap reserve lawyers to handle the Sept. 11 fallout. “Active duty JAGs don’t have the complicated skills of senior tax and probate lawyers like Bell.” A few blocks southwest of the damaged Pentagon, the Sheraton Crystal City was quickly secured by the Pentagon, with multiple checkpoints. Victims’ families were put up in the rooms above as conference rooms became a buffet of social services. Psychologists, soldiers and Salvation Army workers mingled with dazed families. Therapy dogs wandered amid security patrols. Bell’s first task when he arrived was to find other soldier-lawyers to handle the legal needs of the 500 family members that awaited him at the hotel. Joining him were Maj. Edward A. Robbins, a Richmond solo practitioner; Maj. Bryant S. Banes, a commercial litigator at the Justice Department; Maj. Patrick J. Lamoure, an attorney at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and Maj. Christine A. Kiefer, an FBI attorney. “When we got there,” says Robbins, there were “a lot of people who had a lot of questions and nobody who had any answers.” Squeezing into a third-floor conference room, they saw 74 people in the first 48 hours. Immediate financial needs were addressed first, such as providing access to bank accounts so mortgage payments could be made. In the case of some military victims, securing death certificates was delayed to prevent a stoppage of pay. “We were going from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. for two weeks,” says Bell. The gruesome matter of identifying remains made counseling clients more difficult. “There were fireballs of 1,000 degrees going up and down the hallways. People were incinerated,” says Bell. “The folks … at the hotel didn’t know this. They just thought a lot of floors collapsed.” With the help of his firm and Washington, D.C.’s Shaw Pittman, a list of probate lawyers in other states was assembled for families needing local counsel. But much of the initial work was done in the cramped quarters at the Sheraton, where Bell and his lawyers moved about the curtained rooms in camouflage fatigues. FAMILY SQUABBLES ARISE Relatives appeared from across the country, seeking custody of children and sometimes trying to gain financially. “You have families who haven’t been seen for years and are suddenly smelling pots of money,” Bell says. “There’s lots of life insurance money out there, regardless of what Congress does.” One case involved a divorced husband and wife with two minor children in joint custody. “Mom is now dead, but the decedent’s parents didn’t like him,” Bell says. So the wife’s parents asked Bell how they could take the children away from him. Another involved a fight between a victim’s parents and her estranged husband over whether her married or maiden name should adorn her tombstone. With initial estimates of 800 dead, the Pentagon didn’t know how long the mission would last. It ended up lasting one month, ending on Oct. 14. “Legal was one of the first ones in and definitely the last ones out,” says Erickson. Lamoure had the unenviable task of walking along the fourth-floor burn unit of the Washington, D.C., Medical Center seeking the consent of the gravely injured to grant relatives power of attorney. “They all knew each other — they were all in the same office,” he recalls of the burn unit. One supervisor of a civilian Army office decimated by the hijacked jetliner was burned over 70 percent of his body. “They weren’t sure he would survive. He couldn’t speak because smoke inhalation had damaged his vocal cords.” When Lamoure sought consent to grant the man’s wife power of attorney, the victim, whom he would not identify, insisted on signing the form, he says. “He grasped a pen with the tips of his fingers, and nodded his head and indicated that he wanted to put an ‘X.’ “ But one of that supervisor’s employees wasn’t nearly as fortunate. “She was burned almost as severely as he was,” Lamoure says of the Pentagon worker. She was in the process of adopting a child, and her mother wanted power of attorney, he says. Suffering from a severe infection, she never became lucid after the attack. “We were in the process of making her mother a guardian ad litem when she died.” Though the initial reaction of family members at the notion of dealing with lawyers ranged from bewilderment to anger, the attorneys agree that the quickness with which they solved problems was a much-needed salve — both for the families and themselves. “There’s a lot of people who wanted to do something beyond give blood,” Lamoure explains. “I’m kind of lucky that I actually could do something.”

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