A stranger affected deeply by his death

In May 2001, I boarded a plane from JFK to Las Vegas. I was only 14 years old that day, and the first time I saw him I didn’t know his name. I knew nothing about him at all, but he was a man you noticed. A man you remembered. His presence struck me. He was huge, tattooed, with a handlebar mustache, and I stared and stared even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to. He had two young, vibrant, beautiful children and a lovely wife. He seemed like one of the most loving and caring dads anyone could have. I was with my parents and younger brother, and we sat in the back of the plane, in the row right next to them. I was a brat, and I was especially cranky since I hated flying. We were tagging along with my mom on one of her work conferences (she frequently took us along). I found a distraction in the young boy and girl sitting across from me, doing their math homework.

“What kind of math are you working on?” I ventured. For the remainder of the flight I helped, we laughed, our families chatted. As we landed, it was bumpy. The planed lurched violently and I shrieked and grabbed my mother’s arm. The tattooed man chuckled at my fear and I had to crack a smile. We landed, we said our nice-to-meet-yous, and our goodbyes.

In August 2001, I got in my mother’s car and went to see my step-aunt and cousins in the west village. Another dreaded trip. Down to the village from our Westchester home we went, and as usual, finding street parking was a nightmare. Round and around in circles through the neighborhood. That was the second time I saw him, and I still didn’t know his name. “MOM! That’s the guy from the plane! The dad from the family we talked to!” He was absolutely unmistakable, and now I knew something about him – he was a firefighter. That made sense. There he was, plain as day standing in his suspenders in front of the firehouse. I was shocked to see him, and by the time my mom could look up from the road, we were too far gone. But it was him, I knew it. I didn’t understand how this man could reappear so strangely and so plainly into my sight. The world was truly a small place.

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, I sat glued to the television, watching the evening news, waiting for someone to tell me what was next. The fear and the sadness I felt was so deep. I knew this had changed me forever. One night, my television screen was pleading for information on those missing. Flashing photos, names, photos, names, photos, names. That was the third time I saw him. FDNY, Squad 18, Manny Mojica. Missing. It was him. At the top of my lungs I cried out. I screamed, I couldn’t breathe. My parents ran into the room. “He’s gone,” I told them. The man from the plane, with the tattoos. “His family,” I said. It was surreal. I couldn’t understand why. Why was I seeing him? Why did I have to know this man? To know what he left behind? It was too strange and too sad. I knew his name now. It was Manuel Mojica. He was a firefighter, and he had a beautiful family. I knew he would never see them again.

Today, 10 years later, I remember him. On the Internet, I search for his name and I see his photo, his story, and I am reminded that it wasn’t all just a bad dream. Though I am only a stranger to him, to his family, I remember him, I think of them, and I will never, ever forget.

Andrea H., White Plains

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