WASHINGTON — For two years, native New Yorker Matt Paul kept the urn containing the remains of Pentagon Sept. 11th victim Carolyn Halmon on his mantle. But it wasn't because Carolyn was a relative, or even that he knew her at all. Paul was part of an ongoing quest to return the urn to Carolyn's family after it had been stolen by thieves, and he wanted it on his mantle as a reminder of his mission.
It was a quest that took four years and a lot of dedication to fulfill.
But before we get to that, it's important to tell Carolyn's story first.
Carolyn and her husband, Herman Halmon, were high school sweethearts from Bowman, South Carolina. They were largely inseparable before Halmon was sent to Vietnam in 1970 to serve with the Army's 101st Airborne Division.
When he returned from his deployment, the pair settled down in Washington, D.C., where they had two children. Carolyn was dedicated to her church and loved to grow vegetables in her garden, which she often gave away to the neighbors.
"She was just so kind and lovely," Halmon recently said of his wife. "She was my best friend."
They had been married for more than 30 years when the 9/11 terror attacks changed their lives forever.
Carolyn had worked for the FBI for about 14 years before taking a position as a budget analyst in the Office of the Secretary of the Army. Her office was located in the southwest corner of the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77 struck on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I just felt like I'd been in a freezer all night when that plane crashed, because I knew that was right next to her [office]. She was right there by the helicopter pad," remembered Halmon, who had been working at the U.S. Senate when he heard the horrific news.
Halmon said his 49-year-old wife had planned to retire the following year. Instead, the family held a formal ceremony to bury her remains. Later, mortuary officials contacted Halmon to say more of Carolyn's remains had been identified, so they were cremated and given to the family in a bronze urn.
A brazen theft
The urn's unexpected journey started about four years ago when the Halmons' daughter bought a house in the Washington, D.C., area. She had put some of her belongings, including the urn, in a storage unit during the moving process. Unfortunately, someone broke into the unit looking to steal items that could be salvaged at a scrapyard. The urn was one of the items they pilfered.
The thieves took it and other items they looted to a Maryland scrap yard owned by Lee Nantz in hopes of cashing in. Nantz, however, immediately knew the urn shouldn't be in their possession. He confiscated it from the thieves so he could try to return it to the family.
Carolyn's name was inscribed on the urn, so Nantz had a lead to follow. But after about two years of trying, he wasn't able to make any headway in getting in touch with her family. Enter Paul, the 66-year-old New York City native. He had worked at Verizon headquarters directly across the street from the World Trade Center's North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001 and was part of the chaos that engulfed lower Manhattan that day.
Paul is a friend of Nantz. During a visit to Nantz's Darnestown, Maryland, home in 2021, Nantz showed Paul the urn.
"It just touched me, because part of my experience back in 2001 was watching people literally jump to their death," Paul remembered. "Those families were never going to have anything to grieve over, and here was somebody whose family I'm sure would want her back. So, I just said, 'We're going to do this. I don't know how, but we're going to get her home.'"
Finding a connection
For more than a year, Paul tried to find a family connection he could contact. This past April, one of his resources suggested he look on Instagram, where he came across the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial page. Paul messaged the Pentagon Memorial Fund and explained what was happening. The fund's executive director contacted the Pentagon's Office of Military Community and Family Policy, which works closely with the families of 9/11 victims. Soon after, Paul got a call from Trevor Dean.
Dean, an embalmer by trade, had worked for the military's mortuary programs in California and Texas for more than a decade by the time 9/11 happened. On Sept. 12, 2001, he and many of his comrades were flown to Dover Air Force Base to help experts at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations begin the tedious process of identifying remains.
"We spent several weeks out at Dover performing our duties and taking care of those who died in the Pentagon and on American Airlines Flight 77," Dean said.
Eventually, Dean worked full-time for AFMAO and Army mortuary affairs before landing his current role at the Pentagon in 2021 as a program analyst for Casualty, Mortuary Affairs and Military Funeral Honors. Since then, he's been a part of the 9/11 memorial services that are held yearly. Dean and his colleagues had gotten to know many of the survivors and the families of victims — including Halmon, who had attended the first decade's worth of 9/11 ceremonies at the Pentagon Memorial.
"Once we were notified that this urn was now in possession of someone, we felt the urgency to contact the family, and [my colleague] Lisa [Valentine] knew exactly how to do that right away because she maintained contact with them throughout all these years," Dean said.
On the phone with Paul, Dean asked if there was any paperwork with the urn and its remains. Thankfully, Paul said its authenticity papers had been placed inside it, so he sent copies of them to Dean.
"We were a little skeptical [at first]," Dean said. "So, I asked him to see the documentation … and as soon as I saw it, I knew immediately. … I mean, I knew the gentleman who signed the documentation. I worked with him for years. So, I could tell right away this was legitimate."
Dean also verified the engraving on the side of the urn, which had the seal of the Department of the Army. Eventually, both he and Paul got in touch with Halmon.
"That's always kind of nerve-wracking because you don't know how a family is going to react," Dean said of that pivotal moment. "You have this really critical, emotional information, and you don't know how it's going to be accepted. So, that was a very important call that I made with Mr. Halmon."
On the other end of the line, Dean said he heard surprise and elation.
"I just didn't know what to say. Then I called my daughter," Halmon said of the call letting him know his wife's remains had been found. In the years after 9/11, he'd moved back to South Carolina, where he and Carolyn had planned to retire together.
Paul said he wrote Halmon a letter, and Halmon eventually called him back. As they got to know each other, the men started to figure out the logistics of meeting up.
Reunited once again
An official reunification finally happened this past June at American Legion Post No. 8 in Washington, D.C., where Paul led a small ceremony to reunite Halmon with the lost remains of his wife. Halmon, who drove up from his home in South Carolina, finally got to meet Paul, Dean and Nantz.
Halmon, a 27-year Army veteran, was over the moon. His children didn't attend – to them, 9/11 still felt like yesterday – so he was there to represent the whole family.
"For these nice people to hunt us down — a lot of people would just say, ‘Hey, it's just an urn.' But [Paul] sent me a picture, and he'd had it up on his mantle like it was his family — like it was part of him," Halmon said. "He just fought and fought and fought until he caught up with me."
Dean, who has worked thousands of funerals for individual families over his long career, said this ceremony was different.
"This was special because it was associated with 9/11," Dean said. "My connection now with the Pentagon — working in the office that takes care of those families and having taken care of so many families and those that died in the Pentagon 22 years ago — it just was a very different feeling. More personalized."
"You couldn't have met any other people as good as those two men," Halmon said. "We could have sat there and talked in fellowship for months."
Halmon was asked what Carolyn would have thought of the time and attention paid to her.
"She would have said, "All of this for me? I can't believe it!'" he said, recalling that his wife wasn't one to seek out attention.
In Paul's mind, that attention couldn't have been more appropriate.
Before retiring, Paul volunteered as a fire warden for Verizon. He was trained in high-rise evacuations, which were important skills he was able to employ on 9/11. More than 20 years later, he said that role has stuck with him, and it may have been a factor in the happy ending to this story.
"A person like me who trains as a fire warden, it's your job to bring people to safety. And when something happens like [9/11], that's what you want to do. But to stand there and watch that happen to people, and there's absolutely nothing you can do — it tears you apart," Paul said. "This gave me an opportunity to look back on that day and have a good feeling. Because there was nothing good about that day."