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In the wake of 9/11, they changed careers, found a new purpose, and forged ahead

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed America, leading many Long Islanders on life-altering paths. They found they wanted to help people, changed careers, and sought out public service.

An FDNY firefighter, injured by his work at Ground Zero, is a lawyer who has helped other public servants hurt on the job. A magazine producer in Manhattan left that field to become a high school teacher on Long Island. A son who never met the father he lost that day is now in college, pursuing a career that he sees as a connection to his father.

Here are some of their stories.

Stephen Holihan, 52, Lloyd Harbor

'I was a young man'

Holihan was among the thousands of firefighters who dropped everything 20 years ago and rushed to Ground Zero. Terrorists had reduced the Twin Towers to a smoldering pile of rubble, filling the air with toxic smoke and dust.

The breaths Holihan took working 24-hour shifts every other day for two months gave him a lung illness similar to asthma known as Reactive Airway Dysfunction Syndrome.

He had to retire from firefighting in 2003, he said.

"I was a young man, only 33. I thought, 'What am I going to do with my life?' " he recalled.

Firefighting always had been his first love, but he also had been an attorney, handling mostly real estate and litigation. He since has made 9/11 cases his priority.

Now the ongoing impacts of 9/11 are visible on his desk, in the legal cases of firefighters, police officers and other responders who since have developed thyroid cancer, leukemia and prostate cancer.

The memories are as close as the inhaler he keeps in his pocket, and his bouts with coughs that last a season.

"I feel I'm doing something more useful," Holihan said.

In the years after 9/11, he often fielded calls from firefighters, some of whom he knew, asking for his legal help after a diagnosis. He told them, often informally and at no cost, how to file for compensation and disability pensions, where to go, whom to speak to, what they needed.

In 2018, he made that his full-time job, going to work for Napoli Shkolnik, a national legal firm, where he specializes in 9/11-related illness cases.

The work, he said, has been gratifying and heart-wrenching.

"I'm often the second or third call they make after the diagnosis," said Holihan, noting that he still does a lot of pro bono work for firefighters.

Beyond the legal advice, he talks them through the tough days — not being able to work, waiting on a biopsy, going through multiple surgeries, needing a will.

"They need help, they need information," he said. "I don't want them to feel alone."

Photo credit: Danielle Silverman

Jackie McManus, 42, Manorville

'I wanted to help some way'

McManus felt lost in the days that followed the attacks.

Her father, 45-year-old Gerard Schrang of Holbrook, an FDNY firefighter who died that day, did not meet her husband, Steven; attend their wedding in 2006; or see the births of her sons Reece, 12, and Logan, 9.

Jackie McManus and her son Logan McManus, 9,
A photo of FDNY firefighter Gerard Schrang, American
Jackie McManus with her father and FDNY firefighter
Jackie McManus and her son Logan McManus, 9, with photos of her father, FDNY firefighter Gerard Schrang, in Manorville. Schrang's photo appears next to an American flag and a piece of steel from the wreckage. Jackie McManus holds her father's necklace. Credit: Morgan Campbell

McManus, who was a Suffolk County Community College accounting student at the time of the attacks, felt the need for "something different than sitting behind a desk and crunching numbers."

"After Sept. 11 … I wanted to help some way, somehow," said McManus, who worked as a bookkeeper for years. "I knew that crunching numbers wasn't going to help."

She revisited her childhood aspiration to teach, pursued bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, and has taught in New York City public schools for 14 years.

Having taught hundreds of elementary schoolchildren, McManus said she stayed in touch with some of her students and was amazed to watch them grow into adults. A couple of years ago, she went to the graduation of a former pupil who was a member of the Honor Society and en route to college.

"He was a troublemaker in my class," she said with a chuckle. "Now to see him going to college and doing these things, I did something right along his educational timeline."

Looking back, she's glad to have made that switch.

"That was the way I could help," she said. "I can’t see my life any other way."

Susan Kelly, 57, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania

'We know what the end of the world feels like'

In the days following 9/11, Kelly, a mother of four at the time, forgot she was pregnant.

She and her husband, Joseph Kelly, a Cantor Fitzgerald bond broker, typically would wait three months before announcing it. But on Sept. 11, Joseph, 40, was killed in the attacks.

The couple hadn't told anyone she was expecting again, and Kelly, in addition to coping with the loss of her husband, didn’t know what to do about that. She wondered, would people look at the birth of a child without a father as another tragedy?

So she turned to her mother, Mary Stravinskas of West Hempstead, for advice. Her mother told her to continue with their original plan — to wait until three months before telling others in the family.

To continue the plans she and her late husband had has remained Kelly’s guiding philosophy as the life she knew crumbled.

Tim Kelly holds a photo of his father,
Tim Kelly, the youngest son of Joseph Kelly,
Back row, left to right: Thomas Kelly 26
Tim Kelly, the youngest son of Joseph Kelly, who died during the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001, holds a photo of his father and stands with his mother, Susan Kelly. The Kelly family: Thomas, 26, Timothy, 19, Christopher, 28, Catherine, 22, Caroline, 25. Credits: Kriston Jae Bethel and Susan Kelly

"It’s almost like we didn’t change in the sense that everything that was supposed to be our life; we still did it, but without him, as best we could," said Kelly, who remarried five years ago and moved from Oyster Bay to Elizabethtown earlier this year.

In the immediate aftermath, Kelly recalled telling her children that they would continue to live their life — to go to school, play sports and later in life attend college.

"Although what happened to their dad was, of course, tragic, it doesn’t mean the rest of their life was going to be tragic," Kelly told each of her children.

"Everything that my late husband had planned for them — our dreams, hopes and goals — wouldn’t change," the mother of five said. "And it didn’t."

For a dozen years, Kelly worked as an aide in several schools in Oyster Bay, most recently in Glen Head. She is working in a similar job in a Pennsylvania elementary school, she said.

The loss grounded the family in a way that permanently altered their perspective, especially in times of frustrations, she said.

"I know it's a cliché [to say] it's not the end of the world," she said. "But the other part is … we know it’s not the end of the world, because we know what the end of the world feels like."

Manny Damota III, 19, Valley Stream

"I try to ... make the legacy live on'

Damota had not yet been born when his father, Manuel J. Damota, perished when the World Trade Center fell, leaving a gap in the New York skyline and a hole in the life of his unborn son.

Born six months afterward, his life encompasses all the post-9/11 years.

"For me, it really starts after 9/11. My mother was four months' pregnant when everything happened, so I grew up into it," he said.

His mother, Barbara, told him from an early age what happened that day: His father was visiting the World Trade Center for a meeting, representing his company, Bronx Builders, when bad people attacked.

Damota has come to know his father in hindsight. A good man, hard worker. A people person who loved to hear their stories, he said.

"I try to imitate that, and make the legacy live on," he said.

When the 10th anniversary of the attacks came in 2011, Damota, then 9, got up and went to his Lego set and built a foot-high model of the Twin Towers out of blue and white pieces. He put a yellow piece on top of the north tower, representing his father.

"I was thinking about him and the rest of the people who passed away that day," Damota said. "I left it on his tombstone. It was there for months."

These days, Damota is preparing to start his sophomore year at Pace University in Manhattan, not far from the site where his dad and thousands of others died. He likes to visit the 9/11 Memorial and look at his father's name etched there.

"I feel I'm kind of with him," Damota said.

He is studying to become a psychologist — a nod, he believes, to his father's love of hearing people's stories.

"I want to help people emotionally," he said. "I want people to see the world a little bit brighter."

Jessica Sanders, 45, Wantagh

'It was a turning point'

Sanders felt like she was "heading into a war zone" as she walked past National Guardsmen at Penn Station to go to work as a senior producer at BusinessWeek magazine in the days after 9/11.

The fear of future attacks weighed on her.

Sanders recalled evacuating with her colleagues due to a bomb threat about a week after that tragic Tuesday. And then again, two years later, because of a blackout. At first, she mistook those for terrorist attacks.

As she walked 45 flights of stairs down her building in Rockefeller Center during the blackout, "I couldn't help but think of the people who were leaving the World Trade Center and going down those stairs," the mother of two recalled.

Sanders liked her job at what is now Bloomberg Businessweek, but she contemplated a future working in a skyscraper and spending hours commuting on workdays. She thought about what makes a meaningful life.

"It was a turning point where I felt like, you know what, I want to do something where I feel like I'm making [more of] a difference," Sanders said. "What can I do with my life that might be something a little bit more substantial where I feel fulfilled in that way?"

She turned to teaching.

"I work with great people. I have formed such nice, lasting relationships with former students," said Sanders, an English teacher at Lynbrook High School for the past 16 years. "It was the right decision."

Photo credit: Danielle Silverman

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