9/11 families reflect on last 10 years
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Out of the remains of that day, families of the lost have found ways to move forward.
Chris Byrne of Northport named his first child after his brother Timothy, who worked at Sandler O'Neill & Partners when he was killed on Sept. 11, 2001. The boy, now 8, is part of Byrne's legacy, a lasting memory to his Uncle Tim. "I wanted to make sure we had his name back in the family," Byrne said.
The family of Brooke Jackman, 23, who grew up in Oyster Bay and worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, started a foundation promoting child literacy in her name. She loved children, and she loved to read. "We're fulfilling her dreams," said her mother, Barbara.
John Vigiano, a retired city fire captain who lost two sons, John Jr., a firefighter, and Joseph, an NYPD detective at the World Trade Center, regularly goes to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington to visit wounded troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes he's accompanied by cops and firefighters; sometimes by two of Joseph's sons.
"We have a common bond," he said of the vets. "If Sept. 11 had not happened, they might not be in these beds. Because they are, I am here to say thank you."
The attacks of Sept. 11 left children without parents, parents without children, and voids in thousands of families - including nearly 500 on Long Island. Their loss has been excruciatingly public, and they have coped in myriad ways - through public service, through family, through passing on the legacy of those who died.
Families of the fallen take stock
As the 10th anniversary approaches, and with it the opening of the Ground Zero memorial and museum, those families are taking stock of what they've lost and the lives they've worked so hard to rebuild.
"Lately I've been spending a lot of time looking back on all the life events that keep going on - I've had four bar mitzvahs, a high school graduation, another high school graduation coming up," said Sheri Iskenderian, a mother of four whose husband, Aram Iskenderian of Merrick, was a Cantor Fitzgerald vice president. She remarried last March. "At the beginning it was just survival."
Though many 9/11 survivors have tried to remain private, their loss was also the nation's loss. Experts said the upheaval generated by the attacks has made it all but impossible for the victims' families to grieve without a constant torrent of public reminders.
"Typically, if someone's loved one dies, you go through periods of being able not to think about it. But the 9/11 situation was so unusual, because it was one of those hallmark events that defined our current age - it's hard not to think about," said Thomas Demaria, psychologist and director of the C.W. Post 9/11 Families Center who has worked with hundreds of Long Island families that lost relatives. "It's been a constant fixture in their lives," he said.
That has added to their trauma.
Vigiano was catapulted into an uncomfortable celebrity. Sitting on the same couch where he watched TV footage of Sept. 11 unfold, he recounted in his soft-spoken voice how he accompanied the USO to visit troops overseas, meeting with President George W. Bush and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the White House, becoming friends with actor Gary Sinise on a trip to Iraq.
"This isn't me. I am a fireman. Now, all of a sudden I am doing things you could read about," he said. Yet, "I feel when I'm called to do anything, I have to put up a good front and honor my two sons."
"It's like an ongoing wound that keeps causing more misery," he said.
That endless loop between their private loss and anxiety about the future is expressed again and again by those who lost someone on Sept. 11.
"I'd love to find out why this had to be, and why the world is how it is. That scares me," said Annette Palazzolo of New Hyde Park and Florida, whose son Richard worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of Tower One. "I feel bad for these people with young children and where they're going to end up - look at our world."
June Ahearn of Palm Bay, Fla., lost her son Brian, of Huntington, a lieutenant in the fire department.
"They fight in a different way," she said. "My son didn't even have a gun in his hand. What do they say on his death certificate? 'Homicide.' Would you believe that?"
A benchmark anniversary
Jane Pollicino of Plainview, whose husband, Steve, was a vice president at Cantor Fitzgerald, said she hopes the 10th anniversary will reawaken some of the positive spirit that followed the attacks. "I feel like a lot of people took this event, and put it in a box," she said. "It was a wake-up call then, but everybody's back to sleep."
Pollicino is one of the many Long Island survivors who have spent the decade trying to honor their loved ones in ways large and small, public and private. She began helping to lead tours at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center at Ground Zero three years ago, and finds it brings her solace.
Like other survivors, including Vigiano, she described her volunteerism as therapy, helping her come to terms with an event she still finds hard to comprehend. "And they ask great questions too: 'When did you realize your husband wasn't coming home?' And I said, 'I don't think I have yet.' "
For Rosemary Cain of Massapequa, leading tours at the tribute center is a chance to talk about her son. She gives each person a prayer card bearing his smiling picture. "He was a vital, happy person and I want him remembered that way," she said.
Seeking to carry on legacies
Barbara Jackman said she and her family began the Brooke Jackman Foundation as a way to continue the work her daughter would have done. Brooke was applying to graduate school to study social work, and had hoped to work with children. The foundation, which awards grants for literacy programs and distributes "Brooke Packs" - backpacks filled with books - will be holding an event at the World Financial Center around the anniversary. Its advisory committee includes actors Alec Baldwin and Jamie Lee Curtis.
"From the time she was a little girl, she was always wanting to help others," her mother said.
As some parents seek to carry out their children's legacies, many children are following their parent's path.
When Paul Richard Talty, 21, of Wantagh, decided to become a New York City police officer, just like his father, Paul Talty, it made his mother a little uneasy.
"As a mom I am not happy about it but it's what he wants to do," said Barbara Talty. "I am just proud that he wants to follow in his father's footsteps."
Carol Gies of Merrick, whose firefighter husband Ronnie died in the attacks, has since seen two of her sons become firefighters; a third is on the list for the next class. "They're all following in his footsteps," she said.
Still, her loss is fresh.
"You move on a lot, you move on tremendously," she said. "But not a day goes by that I don't think of my husband; not a day goes on that I don't think of Ronnie."
With Melanie Lefkowitz