A huge coup for Journalism, courtesy of Maddy Blais:
Just so you all know and in case you want to tweak your syllabi when there is still plenty of time to do so, I am arranging for David Maraniss to come to our campus on Monday September 22nd, perhaps spilling into the 23rd. His major talk will be late afternoon on the 22nd: exact time and place to be determined with Barbara’s help. His talk comes early in the semester, but not so early, I trust, that at the very least you can offer extra credit to students who attend. He is a big deal: Pulitzer winner, Pulitzer finalist (for his work on 9/11) and has written the first Clinton biography as well as books about Gore, Vince Lombardi, Viet Nam (“They Marched into Sunlight”) and currently, “Rome” about the 1960 Olympics. He is so the real deal.
In an era where long-form is under challenge, Maraniss has a style unequalled in the business. Every time he writes, I read from beginning to end, completely taken in by his writing. As you can see from his Virginia Tech piece, he has the ability to weave a narrative filled with details, facts, emotion. More than 20 reporters and researchers contributed to Maraniss on the Virginia Tech piece — quite an amazing feat.
But, it was his piece on the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (co-authored by Anne Hull and Paul Schwartzman) that really put Maraniss into another stratosphere for me. The link I just gave you doesn’t have the entire piece, so I’ll paste the entire story here. It’s 8,000 words and you won’t leave your seat until you’re done.
Published on: Sunday, 12/09/2001, A section,
edition, zone, A01
Aftermath For Those Whose Lives Were Changed September 11, the Contrast
Between the Mythology Surrounding That Day and Their Own Reality Keeps
By David Maraniss, Anne Hull and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writers
NEW YORK —
At the Fresh Kills wasteland, on a man-made moonscape high above the western
shore of Staten Island, the air smells sweet and rotten. The ground bubbles,
generators hum, cranes creak and roar, their giant claws loosening mangled
loads in earthshaking thuds. Detectives in white Tyvek suits breathe through
gas masks as they move amid squashed firetrucks and piles of steel twisted
into 21st century sculptures of horror.
The word landfill fails to convey this otherworldly place. Fresh Kills is
officially an NYPD crime scene, a fenced encampment of 175 acres guarded at
three checkpoints. More than that, it is an archaeological phenomenon —
most of what’s left of the lost civilization that until September 11 existed
across the bay at the World Trade Center.
Here are the remains of one devastating day, more than 650,000 tons already
and much more on the way, hauled by mud-scarred dump trucks and heaving
barges, all to be disentangled, spread out and examined. Mechanical sifters
and sorters separate detritus large from small, sending humble little bits
hurtling down conveyor belts that roll from dawn to long after nightfall.
The river of debris flows relentlessly and is mesmerizing, chunks of rock
mostly, dark and indistinguishable, but then every few seconds an object
with an unknown story attached: a tube of lipstick, a torn concert ticket, a
Snapple lid, a piece of human bone, a Port Authority badge, a padlock,
moisturizer, a torn hairnet.
Hour after hour, week upon week, the trade center reminders keep coming,
even as the nation has moved on to war and other things.
September 11, nearly three months gone, is now a shared American narrative,
a communal myth, based largely on fact, that tries to make sense of what
seems unexplainable. A cast of everyday heroes. Pure good versus satanic
evil. Common purpose and resolve. The myth comes wrapped in a neat package
and is sold on the street. The coffee table photo books rushed for Christmas
sales, the flag lapel pins, the tourists buying their FDNY caps in Times
Square, these are for the outside consumers of legend. But those on the
inside know harder truths that accompany and at times collide with the myth.
They are real people facing the rawness of what happened and what it did to
them. The debris of September 11 keeps rolling through their lives with the
same ceaseless rhythm as the conveyor belts on Staten Island.
A wounded firefighter wonders how he will react to the first alarm when he
returns to work. The widow of a Port Authority cop struggles with her
loneliness. Her teenage son asks where he can turn in moments of confusion.
A bond trader’s young widow searches for anything to be grateful for at
Thanksgiving. Fights over money, empty caskets, scuffles, arrests,
conspiracy theories, pains, worries, contradictions. After the anthems had
been played, when the wail of bagpipes stopped at last, these were among the
October was nearing an end by the time firefighter Bob Senn convinced the
FDNY medical office that he was fit for regular duty. His eyes, seared by
heat and ash, were healed, but the real unknown was his psychological state.
No way of knowing without trying, he told the doctor, and he wanted to try.
On the first morning, his clock radio went off at 5:30 inside the bedroom of
his house on Buckner Avenue in Hicksville out on Long Island. See you later,
he told his wife, Christine, as he kissed her. Keep it normal, he told
himself, and then ignored his own advice, standing frozen in the driveway as
he stared wistfully back at his house. He took a deep breath and got into
his car, a junker black Probe that no one bothered burglarizing outside his
Brooklyn firehouse. At work, the day began quietly and ended quieter. Senn,
33, had almost forgotten the boredom of being a firefighter. The waiting,
the hoping for a good fire, was 95 percent of the job. But on this first day
back, Senn felt none of the nervous anticipation. Only relief that it was
The fire alarm came on the second day. The dispatcher at the Tillary Street
firehouse read out the particulars — multiple-dwelling fire on an upper
floor. When Engine 207 arrived at the address, Senn looked up at the
14-story building. Everything was now compared to 107 floors. “I could
outrun this,” Senn thought. “It’s as big as a doghouse.” He helped stretch
the line and hook it up to the hydrant. The afternoon was clear, the wind
low. Senn felt he was being dealt an easy one so he could get his confidence
back. They were finished in 45 minutes.
There were isolated moments when September 11 no longer clung to him. He
found a rhythm in answering alarms again. But each time they rode back to
the firehouse, they were met by hundreds of cards and letters taped to the
walls. The locker next to Senn’s was still empty; its occupant dead. Inside
his own locker, he had rearranged his photographs of Christine, their dog
Bentley and his dream motorcycle, replacing that tableau with 15 carefully
taped memorial cards from funerals he had attended. This was his problem: He
wanted to forget yet he kept forcing himself to remember.
Joan Callahan did not have to force herself to remember. On September 11,
she lost her husband, Liam Callahan, a Port Authority cop who had been
organizing a rescue on the 65th floor of the north tower when last heard
from. In the first seven weeks after that unforgettable day, Joan was in a
trance. “Blissfully numb,” she recalled with a touch of morbid irony. Then,
in early November came four straight nights when she could not sleep. She
lay awake thinking and worrying. She hid under one of the countless gifts
from strangers, a quilt made from an American flag that covered the bed she
had shared with her husband of 20 years inside their small, white
split-level on the sidewalkless, car-and-van-jammed, dead-end block in New
Jersey’s Rockaway Township. “Everything broke through the numbness, and it
just became more real,” she said of her sleeplessness.
The memorial service had been held Oct. 13, simple and heartbreaking. A lone
bugler played taps from the hill of the little cemetery outside St. Cecilia
Church. After that, things grew quieter. The prepared meals came less often.
The phone stopped ringing, which Joan thought “in a way was good, because
you do get talked out — I mean, what can you say? The situation doesn’t
change.” Still, the quiet brought out her lingering anxieties. She felt
heart palpitations. Aches and pains came and went. She worried about her
four children in ways she never had before. Routine sleepovers made her
One day, she decided to take the gray out of her hair and stopped at the
salon inside J.C. Penney at the Rockaway mall. The hairdresser was a chatty
woman who jumped right into conversation. How many kids do you have? Four.
How old are they? Senior, sophomore, eighth grade, sixth grade. After Joan
answered another question, the woman laughed and asked, “Well, what does
your husband think of that?”
Joan froze. She was in the real world now, where not everyone knew her fate.
She remained silent for a moment, then prepared herself to state something
aloud for the first time. “I don’t have a husband anymore. I’m a widow!”
The hairdresser was also a widow. When she heard the story of Liam, she gave
Joan a coupon, $5 off next time.
Before September 11, Joan worked as a nurse in the outpatient department at
St. Clare’s Hospital in Denville. She intended to go back in November. But
one morning, while riding in the back of a van taking Port Authority widows
to Pier 94 in Manhattan, where they were to meet with charitable
organizations, she was told she might be rushing things. The other women
convinced her that she “didn’t need another stresser right now.” The
decision was made easier by nursing colleagues who donated their time from
the hospital’s vacation bank. “Don’t try too hard to fill the hole,” her
parish priest, Father Patrick Ryan, kept telling her. “Life goes on; it has
to, but there’s a hole in your life and you can’t cover over the fact. It
wouldn’t be real to try to fill the hole.”
At Father Ryan’s suggestion, Joan saw a psychologist. She started giving
herself “mini-goals,” one task she could do each day, no matter how small.
She considered herself “a perpetual procrastinator,” but little by little
she worked away at the pile of bills to be paid, cards and letters to be
answered and forms to be filled out. At the advice of another widow, she
shut off the television and listened to a compact disc titled “Soothe and
Relax.” The counseling sessions were another haven, a place where she could
talk with no emotional attachment. It was all about her, for the first time
in her life.
Another twin towers widow, Kelly Colasanti, awoke on her birthday morning at
her apartment in Hoboken and reread what she had written in her journal the
night before: I’m 33 years and a widow with two children. It’s the first
time in 16 years that I won’t get a card or a phone call or go out to dinner
Kelly closed the book. There was nothing to add. Chris had been gone for
eight weeks. She put on jeans and a T-shirt, then heard 4-year-old Cara
coming across the wood floor bearing a gift. Happy birthday, Mommy! Kelly
scooped up her daughter, kissed and hugged her. Then they sat on her bed,
Cara on her lap, while she opened the present. A green skirt, corduroy, nice
and soft. Maybe the day wouldn’t be as bad as Kelly feared. She forced
herself to repeat the good things, if only to keep her spirits up for Cara
and baby Lauren. She still had her sisters and brothers and parents.
Strangers were donating money and clothes and free skating and dance lessons
to the kids. And she still had her girls. Cara and Lauren rarely mentioned
their father, so she couldn’t know for certain how they were. But Cara had a
way of blurting things out now and then.
“Why are you wearing that wedding ring? You’re not married anymore,” she
declared one day.
“Yes, I am,” Kelly answered, and just as quickly the subject passed.
Another time, Cara asked, “Is our house going to fall down?” And then, “Is
an airplane gonna fly into grandma’s house?”
On the night of her birthday, Kelly’s mother and father and brothers and
sisters came over. They hung streamers and ate vanilla cake at the dining
room table. I’m enjoying myself, Kelly thought. How strange. They played
“Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” and everyone cheered when Kelly stuck the tail
in the most inappropriate spot between the donkey’s legs. Kelly laughed the
hardest. How Chris would have gotten such a kick out of that one. Then she
turned her face so no one could see the tears.
When everyone went home and the girls fell asleep, Kelly lay in bed. She
realized she didn’t even know how her husband died. What happened after the
plane struck? She envisioned him smothered in a blanket of smoke, his death
instantaneous. She never questioned the strength of their marriage, and
since his death it seemed that everyone talked about him like he was a god.
Great father. Wonderful husband. Successful. Handsome. It was part of the
larger myth, like all of those little biographical obits that ran on a full
page each day in the New York Times, each life so noble and innocent and
interesting. Yet, it was true at the same time.
Still, some questions seeped in. What if I didn’t know everything? What if
Chris had a girlfriend? Or a whole secret life? She remembered how they
would argue about him going out with the guys to the strip clubs after work.
He wasn’t here now to tell her that she was being silly.
“We are the dead. Short Days ago we lived” — the opening lines of the
second stanza of the poem “In Flanders Fields” are taped to the side of
Trinity Church on lower Broadway, one small contribution to the free-form
tale of New York that keeps being told on its walls. The missing-person
fliers that once papered the city by the tens of thousands have diminished,
but the ones still up have become public diaries. Beside Jonathan Briley’s
face on his flier at Grand Central Station were the words, “FOUND, THANK
GOD!” — which meant his body had been recovered. On another: “Arcangel
Vasquez. Found Body 11-5-01. Buried 11-18-01.”
Some fliers were message boards for the dead. On Eugene Clark’s flier,
someone wrote, “Gene, I remember you well from Miller Freeman. God Bless
You. M.S.” And on Joseph Riverso’s: “Joe, we will miss you very much.
Stepinac Football.” Stubbornly, the fliers were kept alive. Families were
posting fresh copies even in late November, when everyone knew the truth. In
the crush of subway commuters stomping by the walls, some would invariably
check to see if a revision had been posted to these living stories of the
New York, New York. City of survivors. The unconquerable place that meets
unthinkable adversity and prevails. Like London during the blitz, the
steadfastness of New York was at once true and part of the communal myth.
Father Ryan, who grew up on Staten Island, lives at a rectory in New Jersey,
and since September 11 has made weekly rounds into Manhattan to counsel cops
and firefighters, said he used to think of the city’s toughness as “mostly
hype.” Now he believes it. But there were individual concerns that no myth,
no matter how comforting, could resolve. These are the problems that almost
overwhelmed the Manhattan psychologist with the felicitous name Robin Good.
Her patients incessantly replayed the September 11 scene, the panic and
tumult. They wondered whether they should stay in New York. And what if al
Qaeda gets a nuke? In a weekly group session, she had a patient who broke
his thumb diving beneath a pedestrian bridge near Battery Park as the first
tower was collapsing. Now he was like a refugee, moving his wife and kids to
the Upper West Side. Another patient lost his best friend. A third saw the
towers fall from her Greenwich Village office.
Everyone was in pain, even Dr. Good. She loved her work and had a second
office down near the twin towers to make it more convenient for patients who
worked on Wall Street. But in the weeks after the eleventh she had begun
dreading the start of each day. One morning, she felt weary by 9:15 after
listening to her first two patients. Her third patient, a British man in his
forties, took his usual place on her brown couch, a gentle New England
landscape hanging on the wall nearby. He talked about his fiancee and how
their wedding had been postponed because of the catastrophe. Then he segued
into a dispassionate assessment of terrorism and how people grow accustomed
to living with fear. Just look at London, where it has been going on
forever, he said. Good’s throat tightened.
At session’s end, the man stood and turned to face her and she began crying.
He tried to console her, and she apologized and walked him to the door. She
took a moment to compose herself in the bathroom, washing her face, clearing
her mind. In came the next patient — a woman who had worked a few blocks
from the trade center and was still trying to make sense of her harrowing
escape that day.
Old jobs, new jobs, no jobs. Part of the American story is that you keep
going no matter what. At 4 in the morning, in a small kitchen in the Crown
Heights section of Brooklyn, Shulaika LaCruz turned her gas oven to 375
degrees and set out her cooling racks. The night before she had measured out
her flour and sugar so that she was ready to go, just as she did at Windows
on the World. The restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the World
Trade Center was gone now, along with all 73 employees who were working that
morning. LaCruz was not on the clock that day; her life was saved but her
job was lost.
In the aftermath, she began waking in the middle of the night and going into
her kitchen, thinking of her friends. Heather Ho, a pastry chef. Miss Lucy,
a housekeeper who shared her family recipe for West Indian black cake.
LaCruz was a native of Curacao. Eighty percent of the Windows workers were
immigrants who labored mostly unseen by the diners sitting in the clouds.
LaCruz thought of herself as being part of a large family up there.
At Windows she put finishing touches on Sally Lunns and white chocolate
extravaganzas for $12.21 an hour, but at home she began making simpler
things. Meringue cookies. Cheesecakes. When the sun came up, she took her
baked goods on the A train to Midtown Manhattan, where a spare office was
being used to help the hundreds of immigrant workers left without jobs. Some
were being evicted. Some who had earned $400 a week were relying on food
pantries. The families of the dead had their sorrow, but they also had tens
of thousands of dollars in relief checks and donations. The jobless had the
cookies and cakes baked by Shulaika LaCruz.
Steve Miller still had his job, but was thinking of leaving it. One midnight
late in the fall, he sat at the desk in his Brooklyn apartment, smoking,
sipping red wine and flipping through one of those old books he liked to buy
off eBay, a bound volume of Harper’s magazines from 1877. From his window he
saw the southern tip of Manhattan and the misty hole in the skyline where
his office at the twin towers once stood. He had walked down 80 floors that
day from his desk at Mizuho Bank, where he oversaw the computer system, then
on to the Brooklyn Bridge, where he turned and saw WTC 2 collapse, all the
way home to Rhonda, his wife, who had given him up for dead. The first few
weeks afterward had been pure adrenaline, telling the story over and over,
honing the details down to a 10-minute narrative, his contribution to the
communal myth of survival. He felt a new sense of elation and urgency and
strength that he was alive.
But as he leafed through Harper’s that night, Miller wondered whether he and
Rhonda should stay in New York, a city that he loved but that now seemed to
wear a bull’s-eye. He had watched those incredible ninth-inning comebacks of
the Yankees during the World Series and found himself caught up in the drama
of the team, like the city, rising from adversity. But reality intrudes; the
Yanks eventually lost the Series. What would happen to him?
Mizuho had relocated to the 25th floor of an office in Times Square. At
least it wasn’t in the tallest building around anymore. Yet, he dreaded the
prospect of traveling to the heart of Manhattan each workday. The old
Harper’s book, with the musty smell, the archaic etchings and strange
articles, got him thinking about the importance of preservation,
particularly when everything seemed so transient. Maybe, he thought, he
could become an archivist of some sort.
Everyone was at a different place in the myth. Or facing it from a distinct
angle. Joan Callahan and her children heard Liam described as a hero. They
knew him as a real-life husband and father who could be as exasperating as
he was loving — arguing with Joan over the little things, forcing the kids
to press their school uniforms each morning, rattling the door of the two
girls to get them out of bed, telling them not to roll down their pants to
reveal their navels. “Dad!” the kids often shouted. “Have you completely
forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager?” Still, he had lived and died
saving other people. That place where truth and myth converged comforted
They covered themselves in his heroic legacy — the flag quilt on Joan’s
bed, the Port Authority jackets, cool, black and oversized, that the kids
wore to school, the T-shirts listing all the Port Authority dead, Liam
Callahan inscribed near the top. When food came from friends and strangers,
they ate it. When money was offered, they took it: a month’s worth of bills
paid by the Salvation Army, subsistence funds from Safe Horizons and a
Buddhist agency, scholarship help from parents at Morris Catholic, the
school for the two oldest kids. Tickets for parades, photo sessions with the
New York Giants. . . .
“It’s nice to have all this stuff, and a great opportunity,” said Brian
Callahan, the high school senior. “But then you remember, oh, yeah, I have
it because my Dad is dead.”
The contradiction was strongest on the October night that the entire family,
minus little James, drove into the city for a concert at Madison Square
Garden. It was sponsored by Paul McCartney and the Robin Hood Foundation to
raise money for victims of the terrorist attack. The Callahans were among
the special guests with free passes, though when they arrived they noticed a
swarm of firefighters and cops in the rows ahead of them. Someone took note
of the disparity and shifted the family closer to the front, at a prime spot
on an aisle near a corridor where celebrity musicians and comedians passed
as they headed to the stage. Brian and the two girls, Bridget and Ellen,
stood the entire time, from 7 at night to 1 the next morning, taking
pictures, clapping, shouting out the names of passing stars, rounding up 17
autographs. Mike Myers was their favorite.
Liam Callahan was mentioned twice from the stage, including once by comedian
Jim Carrey, which “was pretty cool,” Brian thought. Joan looked over at her
children occasionally, thankful that they seemed to be lost in the moment.
For her, the long night seemed surreal, as irritating as it was thrilling.
Mick Jagger, the Who, McCartney, she was amazed by the musicians rocking up
there. But much of it she found hard to take, and there were times when she
wished she could have been “beamed right out of that building.” When one
firefighter, Mike Moran, shouted from the stage that Osama bin Laden could
“kiss my royal Irish ass!” Joan blanched.
She understood that the cops and firefighter “deserved and needed a
respite,” just like her kids. Yet, she thought they were having “too much of
a good time.” Were these the heroes? she wondered.
Firefighter Bob Senn saw the myth in another way. Over the weeks he had gone
from survivor to messenger, using his memory to explain the larger story of
his comrades. Because he was the last man to see several of his squad
members alive, widows and family members called him with their questions.
What was the look on his face?
Did he say anything?
Did he seem scared?
On several occasions Senn met family members at ground zero, a term most of
them grew to dislike. He would pace off the last minutes, pointing to the
Marriott Hotel where he passed so-and-so, or describing how brilliantly the
sun was shining on the red fire engines that day. The families had trouble
envisioning much of his story because everything was gone now except
fragments and spines of buildings. Over there, he would point, that was
where we parked the rig. This is where the atrium was for tower one. He
carried them all the way through to the end, which is not when he saw the
men die but in the moments before, when he saw them trotting or adjusting
their chin straps, or caught a last glimpse of the stenciled names on the
back of their bunker coats as they disappeared into the fog. There was no
time to be scared, he told each family member.
As they listened, Senn could see the relief in their faces. This made him
feel useful. He told his wife that maybe this was why his life was spared.
“I’m earning it,” he would say. “I’m not just coasting.”
He pulled duty at the site now and then, working a tedious but gruesome
12-hour shift. When a body part was found — a hand, an arm still threaded
to a shoulder — tags were attached and rescue personnel would ride out to
the location on an ATV. They would scan the bar code on the tag to pinpoint
for the database exactly where the remains were found. Then the body part
would be taken to the field morgue and eventually to the city morgue for DNA
testing. The task was at once physical and spiritual at what the
firefighters considered a hole site. But the pace of the larger recovery
effort infuriated Senn, as it did most of his firehouse brothers.
He thought the 16 acres were being hurriedly cleaned to make way for new
real estate ventures. He understood the necessity of large machinery but
objected to the methodology: He watched as grapplers scooped up tons of
material, dumping it in truck beds that in turn dumped it into the barges
that eventually carried it down the river and across the bay to the Fresh
Kills landfill on Staten Island. Senn thought all of the sifting should be
done at the trade center site. It horrified him to think of a lost comrade
being shunted off to a dump. “They are being treated like garbage,” he said.
Nearly two months into the recovery effort, on the Friday morning of Nov. 2,
the frustration of the firefighters spilled into the streets. The city’s two
fire unions were being pounded with calls from rank and file and families of
the dead, furious that the city was cutting the number of firefighters at
the hole. They took it as an act of disrespect. It ran contrary to one of
the central themes of the communal myth — that the catastrophe had a
democratizing effect, raising middle-class firefighters to exalted status,
honoring service above money in the capital of capitalism. It always
bothered her, a fire widow said, that “a stockbroker could earn a hundred
thousand dollars in 10 minutes but they wouldn’t go running into a burning
building like my husband.” The balance had shifted some, but was it swinging
Rumors flew: Mayor Rudy Giuliani wanted to clear the site before he left
office; his legacy was more important than the bodies of the dead. The city
had recovered lost gold — true: $230 million in gold and silver was
recovered from underground vaults at 4 World Trade Center belonging to the
Bank of Nova Scotia — and didn’t care after that what happened at the site.
Finally, the rank and file decided to march in protest, telling the union
heads they could follow along.
The march began at West and Chambers streets, a few blocks from the site. A
thousand firefighters, about a dozen widows. There was scuffling, brief and
convulsive, near Barclay Street when the cops tried to block the marchers
from walking onto the site. Fire Capt. Peter L. Gorman, president of one of
the unions, was in the middle of the scrum. He saw cops trying to keep the
firefighters back. He said there was shoving, his guys grabbing officers by
the shirts, hats flying to the ground, people falling, cursing and
screaming, uniforms stained with mud.
Cops shouted “Guys, stop right there!” and the firefighters shouted back,
“Do the right thing! Let us through! Bring the brothers home!” The marchers
passed through metal barricades and got about 30 yards from their holy
ground, assembling next to a bulldozer and a huge crane, where they recited
the Lord’s Prayer and then marched off to City Hall, where they sang “God
Bless America” before dispersing. Gorman felt sick over the scuffling.
Firefighters had been national heroes, and now he worried that they had
dirtied their reputation by clashing with their brother cops.
A few days after the firefighters were arrested, Dee Ragusa and her husband,
Vincent, decided that the time for silent grief was over. They had lost a
son in the inferno, Michael Ragusa from Engine 279 in Red Hook, and were
feeling some of the disquiet that enraged Michael’s surviving comrades. They
decided to attend a meeting of the newly formed 9-11 Widows and Victims’
Families Association at Marian Fontana’s apartment in Brooklyn. Fontana’s
husband, David, was among those lost at Brooklyn’s Rescue Squad 1. The
Ragusas didn’t know anyone at the meeting, but they shared the frustration
in the room. Dee Ragusa was concerned about how the debris is being
processed at Fresh Kills. She unrolled a poster of her son. “See, they have
faces,” she said. There was no respect. Tourists were taking pictures at
ground zero. “It punches me in the chest,” she said. “And stop saying the
city is getting back to normal. That’s not sending the right message.”
She leaned forward in her chair, explaining the defiance. “They can’t do
anything to us,” she says, “because we’ve lost everything.”
Fontana has been fielding telephone messages nonstop from television
producers wanting to do the angry widow story. Now she got another call, and
this one she took. One of her contacts offers to smuggle her into Fresh
Kills at midnight.
In tragedy, there is usually a direct correlation between how close a person
is to it and how soon the pain and horror fade. At Good’s group therapy
session on Nov. 15, the psychologist, perhaps like the city, was emerging
from an overpowering sense of sadness and fear. One man started talking
about the fliers of the dead again, and Good sensed that the others wanted
to change the subject. September 11 was still the group’s preoccupation, but
less than before. One woman talked about her trip to an art gallery in SoHo
to see the “This is New York” photo exhibit, about 2,000 pictures of the day
and its aftermath. You forget how quickly you forget, she said.
Good could see the change toward the end of the session. A woman talked
about a recent date she had gone on. Nice guy, she said, but there was a
problem. He was a nerd.
A nerd? What’s your definition of a nerd? a lawyer in the group asked. Then
he added: “I’ve always wondered if people think that about me. Does anyone
here think I’m a nerd?”
It was an absurd discussion, but the psychologist was comforted. At least
they had found something new to talk about.
Steve Miller, inspired by the old Harper’s book, imagined living with Rhonda
in a quiet town somewhere. She would be taking care of the baby (they would
have one, he was sure) and he would be working at a university. He felt a
sense of excitement, like he was having an epiphany. Perhaps this was a way
out of the trap, another escape, the working world equivalent of his dash
down the trade center stairwell. He went on the Internet and found what he
was looking for: master’s programs in library and information sciences. He
ordered a slew of applications to schools outside New York — a survivor
planning to bail.
Shulaika LaCruz never doubted what she loved to do, but now she is without
such options. She will be jobless on Wednesday when her temporary work with
the immigrant aid agency ends. She has no prospects for employment. Before
September 11, she was carefully saving $20 a week for a 14-cup Cuisinart,
her dream. Now such a wish seems foolish. Last week, she spent $71 on baking
supplies: chocolate chips, jellies, flour, sprinkles, cream cheese, paper
molds. “I am a baker,” said LaCruz. “It’s what I do. It reminds me of
Windows. Of love. Security. And home. Even though it’s gone.”
Father Ryan, who had memorialized Liam Callahan and counseled Joan, still
had a list of cops and firefighters calling him and asking to see him, and
he kept visiting the trade center site and Fresh Kills. But in November he
felt his mind adjusting to the reality of his changed world. He knew what to
expect now. He saw good things continue to happen, like the firefighters who
rode bicycles up the East Coast to raise money for their brethren at Rescue
5 on Staten Island, and he decided to focus on those things rather than the
evil. With equal parts bemusement and dismay, he took in what he considered
the more bizarre aspects of the consumer myth, like the fundraiser held by
Victoria’s Secret models. “Capitalism survives no matter what, though you
wish it could be a little different,” he said.
After September 11, his church had overflowed with parishioners seeking
spiritual guidance. Now the masses were back to more modest earlier levels.
It was to be expected, part of the natural rhythm. From his room in the
rectory, the priest looked out at the cemetery and watched the leaves change
colors and then “cling on for dear life to the trees from whence they came.”
By Thanksgiving, the leaves had almost all given up the battle to stay
Thanksgiving morning. Little Cara and Lauren Colasanti were sprawled on the
kitchen floor, cutting turkeys out of construction paper, giggling and
yakking away in their sing-song voices. So cute together, Kelly thought,
watching from the counter. These days that involved large gatherings were
hardest for her. She had avoided the Cantor Fitzgerald event in Central Park
in early October because she didn’t really feel part of that family. Cantor
was Chris’s world, not hers. She had survived her birthday, with her family,
and maybe Thanksgiving wouldn’t be so bad. The girls kept her anchored. She
didn’t want to be around too many people, yet she could feel herself
drifting off when she was alone. The night before, in her diary, she wrote:
I feel so far away. I feel so far away. I feel like Chris is a memory.
In the afternoon, she drove to her parents’ house in Maplewood, where her
siblings and niece and nephews assembled in the living room. At 4 they sat
to eat. Sister Robin next to husband Michael. Sister Kerry next to husband
Rob. Then Jimmy and Jen and mother and dad. “I’m the only widow,” Kelly said
Matthew, her 5-year-old nephew, stood and announced that it was time for a
game: Everyone say what they’re thankful for. My grandkids, said Bob,
Kelly’s father. Kelly was relieved when the game stopped well before it
reached her end of the table. No prayers and no family pictures, she had
instructed her mother the night before. Who would want to remember this? She
listened to the talk around her.
What’s in the soup . . . Is it ginger? . . . Great sweet potatoes. . . .
Chris would have made this more fun. He would have teased his
brothers-in-law or said something inappropriate to make everyone laugh.
Kelly stood up and walked away from the table, upstairs to her old bedroom,
the one in which she had spent her childhood. She lay down in the dark. “Oh
God, Chris,” she said. “This is awful.”
Neither a counselor nor a priest could give Bob Senn the answer he wanted:
Why had his life been spared? It was a question that only grew as time
passed. Christine gave him a book called “Angels Everywhere: Miracles and
Messages.” He sought meaning in the smallest details. Around the firehouse,
guys confessed that they had dreamed of their dead friends. Senn suggested
that maybe the dreams were a form of communication. “It’s not like I’m going
to the mountaintop and shouting hallelujah,” he would say. “I just want to
know, why am I alive and what is my purpose?”
He rejected the hero myth at every turn. When a neighbor tried to introduce
him to a friend by saying, “This is one of our heroes,” Senn told her to
“knock it off.” It was a word he didn’t like.
Like Kelly Colasanti, Senn dreaded the holidays. He kept imagining Christmas
dinner tables with 3,000 empty place settings. He usually hosted the holiday
season block party on Buckner Avenue, but after September 11, the neighbors
didn’t know what to expect. Many were surprised when they found fliers in
their mailboxes a few days after Thanksgiving. They had the unmistakable
mark of Bobby Senn. “Although some of you have jumped on the warm weather as
an opportunity to hang out your outdoor decorations, for the second year we
would like to invite you down at 9:45 a.m. to 9 Buckner for some morning
coffee and doughnuts.”
Senn had ordered 400 small American flags from a novelty company. He spent
three days painstakingly writing the name of a firefighter or police officer
on every flag. After the coffee and doughnuts were finished, the neighbors
dispersed to their houses to begin stringing lights. Senn went out to his
yard and got to work. He planted each flag 18 inches apart, creating his own
memorial. On the seventh row from the end, fourth from the left, stood a
flag with the name Liam Callahan.
Take time for yourself, people kept telling Joan Callahan, and it was with
that tape playing in her mind that she decided to leave last Monday with a
sister for a week’s vacation in Hawaii. It was another goodwill gift, all
expenses paid by the tourist industry in Hawaii. About 600 other police and
fire widows took the offer, including Marian Fontana, who left after
sneaking into the Fresh Kills dump and writing an excoriating e-mail about
what she saw and then meeting with Giuliani. Some widows said they simply
were not ready to leave their children. Martha Butler, with three children
under the age of 6, went to a Long Island mall instead but had to leave
after seeing all those “daddies holding their children’s hands.”
Joan vacillated for a few weeks. She had just written her sister into her
will as the guardian of the four children. The kids wanted her to go. The
girls and little James would stay with friends. Brian could handle it alone
at the house. He especially urged her not to feel guilty.
Brian had been doing his own soul-searching. One night he and friends went
to the AMC theater, where he works as a supervisor 16 hours a week, to watch
the film “Life as a House.” It stars Kevin Kline as a dying man trying to
reconcile with his son. There was no reconciliation necessary between Liam
and Brian. He revered his father, but still the issues in the movie set him
thinking about his family and his life. When the show was over, he went over
to his friend Diana’s house and talked until 1 in the morning. There were
things inside that he wanted to say, not clear thoughts but intense feelings
of confusion. Why could he have a normal day and go to school and wrestling
practice and feel fine, and then come home and see his mom or his sisters
having a rough day? And then, other days, why did it hit him so hard? He
didn’t have answers.
Last weekend, he went on a retreat in Newton and helped a team of seniors
lead sessions of Search for Christian Maturity. He put a lot of effort into
the weekend and learned a lesson for his life. Things can be hard, but if
you keep working at it, you will get something worthwhile. Keep going. His
dad had lost his father when he was only 13. Brian could go on.
The most intense part of the retreat came during an offertory at which the
young men and women were asked to sacrifice something that meant the most to
them. Brian offered one of the bookmarks with his father’s face on them that
were handed out at the memorial service. And he also gave up a letter that
he had written to his father hours before. In the letter, he told his father
how much he missed him.
One night he dreamed three times that his father came back. The first time,
he “freaked out” and began shouting, “You’re home! You’re home!” But then
the vision of his dad told him firmly, no. Brian went back to sleep, and
there came his dad again, doing stuff around the house, but every time Brian
asked him whether he was home, if this was real, his dad would say no. He
needed his father, he wrote in the letter. At times when he most needed
advice, he was overcome by the realization that he could not go to his dad
He had been arguing more with his mother, not in a mean way but out of a
sense that she didn’t understand his needs. In the past, in similar
situations, his dad would always say, “Look, I’m a friend of the child,” and
sit and listen to all sides. “You can’t talk to your mother,” Liam might
say. “I know. I’ve known her for 20 years, Brian.” And then he would calm
Brian down and tell him how to deal with it. That is what Liam Callahan did
for his son. “I love you. I miss you. I’m proud of you,” Brian closed his
letter. That night, it was burned in the fire with the rest of the
Fresh Kills, derived from the Dutch for “new channels,” but in its recent
context, it has taken on a macabre redefinition. According to the NYPD
inspectors who run the recovery operation, more than 2,550 body parts have
been found there since September 15. A badly disfigured body was discovered
last Wednesday morning. There have been 34 positive identifications of trade
center victims. The fire widows and their supporters consider that a
shocking number — too high in a sense, since they would prefer that all
sifting be done at the twin towers site, yet also too low, since they
believe the work on Staten Island is haphazard. During her undercover visit,
Marian Fontana said she saw a boot lying in the mud.
The cops in charge argue that the dispute is largely a case of emotional
misunderstanding. They say that more than 270 detectives have been working
the site in those white suits, day and night, examining the conveyor belts,
working the Raking Fields. They chased the sea gulls away with fireworks
shot from guns. They claim to have seen no insects or rodents. They say they
are trying to give the ground the dignity the fire widows believe it so
Heroes clash at Fresh Kills, and versions of the myth collide. When Father
Ryan visited one evening last week, he strolled the darkening moonscape
until he came across a stand of Christmas trees, brightly lit and rising
from planters that had been taken from the World Trade Center. “I see this
as an act of defiance,” he said. On the ground outside the FBI hut sits the
battered engine from American Flight 11, the first plane that struck
September 11. Nearby is part of the landing gear.
A few hundred yards away, down past the Raking Fields and the conveyor belts
and the piles of twisted steel comes the most haunting sight of all, row
upon row of firetrucks crushed and burned. At first, even after reaching the
graveyard, many arrived with their red emergency lights still turning, but
no more. Embedded into some rigs are documents from Goldman Sachs or
PaineWebber, litter that fell from the towers when the planes hit and the
buildings collapsed. The trucks, once polished so methodically — Engine
270, Rescue 2, Haz-Mat 5, Engine 132 — sit on this faraway hill and rust
away, their FDNY emblems cooked off from the heat of an unimaginable fire.
Down below the mound, at the end of a road that leads to the shoreline, the
Department of Sanitation barges keeping coming, each able to hold 650 tons.
D.S. 145 has just pushed away. D.S. 156 is next in line. D.S. 123 can be
seen nudging slowly out of the watery shadows, having made its way down the
Hudson and past the Statue of Liberty. At the dock sits D.S. 14, shuddering
as a giant blue crane, primeval and frightening, aches and roars and
screeches and opens its claws to snatch another load from the lost