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Survivors of Sept. 11 victims look for meaning and find ways to move
By Holly Ramer, Associated Press
EDITOR'S NOTE -- When terrorists took the lives of some 3,000 people on Sept. 11, they also upended the lives of thousands upon thousands of surviving husbands and wives, daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. Here are some of those survivors' stories.
NASHUA, N.H. — Doug Mackay jotted down his wife's flight information and headed to work at the Boston region's air traffic control center that Tuesday a year ago. If it was a quiet day, he planned to ask the pilot to say hello to Susan when the plane passed through.
As he arrived for his 10 a.m. shift, he was still digesting the news that two jetliners had hit the World Trade Center. Then a supervisor asked him what flight his wife had taken. When he answered "American 11," he was led to an empty office.
"It was like someone just hit me in the face with a baseball bat," he said.
Since that day, Mackay has delivered the Christmas presents Susan had already stashed in their Westford, Mass., home. With his 9-year-old daughter's help, he's learning which of the shirts she bought him match which pants.
But he still can't bring himself to drive by his own office. The air traffic control center in Nashua -- which directed both of the hijacked planes from Boston on Sept. 11 -- holds nothing but memories of his wife's death.
"When the plane was over Albany, N.Y., and it turned south, it came right through the air space that I work, the sector I could've been sitting at at the time," Mackay said. "I haven't even been back in the building. I haven't even driven by."
Thanks to air traffic controllers all over the country who have donated some of their sick time, Mackay, 47, will remain on paid leave until he becomes eligible for retirement in two years.
That has given him time to spend with his daughter, Lauren, and 13-year-old son, Matt. They've been the ones to help him through.
"I couldn't imagine if you didn't have something to push you like that, how you'd survive," Mackay said.
Susan Mackay, 44, was a vice president at the parent company of T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and Home Goods. She loved her job, working 12-hour days and checking in with her office even while on vacation. But she still found time to make her sister's wedding gown and help decorate her friends' homes.
On Sept. 11, she was flying to Los Angeles to help open a new store. As she drove to the airport that morning, she left notes in three of her friends' mailboxes thanking them for fun times they had shared that summer.
"She was just doing everything for everyone," her husband said.
By DEEPTI HAJELA
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK — Ruth Powell and Irene Smith were strangers six months ago, though they lived in the same Brooklyn neighborhood and each had a son who was a firefighter.
Seated together at an event in March, they were introduced and realized they shared something else -- the pain of losing those sons among the 343 firefighters killed in the destruction of the World Trade Center.
Now friendship can't even begin to describe what the two women mean to each other.
"We can see each other's pain. We have a two-person support group, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Powell, 58, whose 32-year-old son, Shawn, was part of Engine Company 207.
They cry together, comfort each other in late-night phone calls during the many sleepless nights, help each other try to live with a grief they say is unlike any other.
"We have really bonded because we both have lost the most precious thing in the world, a child," said Smith, 68, whose son, Leon, 48, was part of Ladder 118. "Whatever my fears are, when I speak to Ruth, I feel better."
Although both have family, neither has a spouse at home. Smith, a widow, said she is not comfortable sharing her pain with anyone other than Powell. Smith said her mother and mother-in-law have lost children themselves, but "I try not to burden them with my feelings, because they're older now.
"That's the mask I have to wear because I don't want them to worry," she said. But with Powell, "I don't have to pretend."
They also share a fear -- that their sons' remains will never be found.
Each of them has held a memorial service for her son. Now each waits, and prays, for the city medical examiner's office to give her something she can bury.
As the anniversary of the attacks approaches, the women still find it hard to believe that their sons won't come home, that a year has gone by.
"The anticipation of it is like a thousand bricks on me and each day it gets closer to Sept. 11, it's like one more brick added on to the weight," Powell said.
"I thought I would be able to accept it a little bit more, but I'm not at that point," Smith said.
"I don't know if I'll ever get to that point."
By MEGAN BOLDT
Associated Press Writer
STANLEY, N.D. — The terrorist attacks happened miles away, almost worlds away, from this town tucked in the plains of northwestern North Dakota, a place where people would leave their doors unlocked and keys in their cars.
But after Sept. 11, things changed for Stanley's 1,200 residents. The attacks took one of their own.
"Every time they look at us, they think about what they could lose," said Jenette Nelson.
A year ago, Jenette and Gary Nelson's 30-year-old daughter, Ann, was excelling in her new job as a bond broker at Cantor Fitzgerald. She was on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower on Sept. 11.
After the attacks, the community rushed in to help. Fellow teachers filled in for Jenette at Stanley High School. Friends cleaned the Nelson house and replaced some rotting planks on the deck. People from all over the state -- from all over the country -- sent blessings and gifts.
The Three Affiliated Tribes sent a special quilt. Schoolchildren sent drawings and cards. The Stanley Jaycees made buttons displaying a picture of Ann hugging her dog, Newman, a 110-pound Newfoundland. People around the country requested one.
The Nelsons also received a red, white and blue blanket, with each square knit by a different person in a different state.
"The outpouring of care and concern has been absolutely unbelievable," Gary Nelson said.
Ann had carried a double major in political science and economics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. She also could shoot pool with the best of them, spent semesters in Britain and China, and visited Scandinavia, Ireland and Mexico. She went on a five-week backpacking tour of Peru by herself.
"That was typical Ann," said her boyfriend, Eric Lockovitch. "She didn't even know Spanish. She read a book on the way."
Nelson said Ann went far beyond a father's high expectations for his only daughter.
"It started with her reaching for my hand," he said. "But it all ended for me reaching for hers."
This year, a new course is being offered at Stanley High School. It's called "Conflict Resolution." The instructor is Jenette Nelson.
"I just want to teach them how to solve disagreements without violence," she said.
And she doesn't like to think about the past. She thinks about the present.
"I don't like to go to the grave, because I don't feel like she's there," she said. "I feel like she's still with me."
By ERIN McCLAM
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK — Anxious and confused on his first day of high school, Nik Dedvukaj tracked down his brother, 1.5 years his senior, and peppered him with questions: Where do I go? What do I do?
"Just follow me," the big brother said.
It was an attitude Simon Dedvukaj kept all his life. The oldest son of eight children, second-generation Americans in an Albanian family, he was his siblings' role model -- taking on their problems, teaching them morals by example.
"If I did something wrong, if I was mean to someone, he took me aside and told me it was something I shouldn't be doing," Nik Dedvukaj recalled. "He really taught me the way."
The pattern held in adulthood. Once, Simon gave a brother his computer because he knew it would do more good that way. Another time he gave Nik his Honda Accord. Simon took his job, as an ABM Industries janitor, at the request of his father, who also worked there.
By age 26, he was a janitorial foreman, working as part of ABM's contract with Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc. He was stationed on the 95th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center.
"He liked the place," his brother said. "He used to tell me stories about the building, the people. He used to say how beautiful it was."
Today, Nik Dedvukaj tries to honor his brother's memory by holding fast to the values he learned from him -- honesty, devotion to friends and family.
Selflessness is among the most important, Nik said -- although just once, in the year before his death, Simon Dedvukaj did something for himself.
One of his sisters had taken a trip to Europe, stopped in Yugoslavia and met a woman she thought would be perfect for her brother, back home in Mohegan Lake, N.Y. She called her brother and told him so.
Simon promptly bought a plane ticket to Yugoslavia. He fell in love with the woman, Elizabeta. They were married Oct. 7, 2000.
"He was just a family man," his brother said. "He held up all the traditions, the heritage. He was what we all looked up to."
By PAUL WILBORN
Associated Press Writer
LOS ANGELES — A Lebanese Catholic born in Israel, Joseph Iskandar was looking for peace when he moved his family from Lebanon to California in 1984.
Iskandar, his wife, Samia, and their children, Sany, May and Waleed, lived through the country's disastrous civil war and the recurring battles between Israel and its Arab neighbors. He was working in Kuwait in 1990 when Saddam Hussein's troops invaded.
"If I saw hope for peace (in the Middle East), I wouldn't have come here," Iskandar said. "We thought the United States was the answer to our prayer."
Safety in America, it turned out, was an illusion.
Almost a year after terrorists steered an airplane carrying his 34-year-old son, Waleed, into the World Trade Center, Iskandar's emotions gather suddenly. He reaches into his pocket for a silver rosary, and his fingers slide from bead to bead as he silently recites his prayers.
"I couldn't take this alone. It's unbearable," he said. "I start praying to God and I find peace."
Iskander, 70, and his wife go to Mass each morning. He tends a memorial garden and spends up to five hours a day expanding a Web site devoted to Waleed's life.
"I am living now," Iskandar said, "just to keep his memory alive."
A management consultant with degrees from Stanford and Harvard and a natural hunger for adventure, Waleed would disappear for weeks at a time in the rain forests of South America, or the veldt in Africa. He drove a scooter across India and biked around Europe. Fluent in English, French and Arabic, he had friends all around the globe.
Dr. Habib Soghbi, president of the Harvard Alumni group in Lebanon, said Waleed was a symbol of what is good about the Middle East.
"By assassinating Waleed, they also assassinated, without pity, progress, science and honesty," Soghbi said.
Masses were held for him in Boston, London, Beirut, Bahrain and Los Angeles.
At home recently on a sunny morning, his father sat meditating on what he calls "Waleed's Garden." Water spilled from a stone fountain. Red and yellow roses pushed out blooms. The tiny electric cross glimmered.
"It's something you think would get easier," he said, his voice a choked whisper. "It doesn't get easier."
By ERIN McCLAM
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK — Steve Simone remembers walking south in the dead silence, his eyes searching the blank stares of the people he passed as he traced a path to what used to be the World Trade Center. He was looking for his mother.
"It was like my head was on a swivel," he said. "I just remember scanning all the faces, trying to see if it was her."
He never found her.
Marianne Simone worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 101st floor, fielding calls about computer problems and tracking down the people to solve them. Over the years, she had developed a fear of working so high in the trade center.
But she kept the job: At 62 and without much money in savings, she had no plans to retire. Besides, the early hours gave her afternoons off. She often used the time to visit her daughter, Lisa, who suffers from Crohn's disease, an incurable, tough-to-treat intestinal disease.
Simone was the matriarch of a family of kidders. She poked fun at her 33-year-old son for being messy. In return, he ribbed her about how she always wanted to be the best-dressed. Her daughters nicknamed her Liz Taylor.
"When we got together, you could hear us all laughing from the street," said Steve Simone said. "When you're that close, nobody takes offense."
In the year since the attack, Simone has tried to console his two sisters by reminding them their mother lived a full life. She stayed extremely close with her family, and she laughed a lot. She would have wanted them to keep up the laughter.
She also loved to travel, and the family hopes to keep her memory strong by visiting the places she loved. One day, they hope to save enough to buy a places at one of her loves, the North Carolina shore.
When she was feeling bold, Marianne Simone liked to travel to Atlantic City with friends and play the slots. But she was happiest with her relatives -- times like the yearly crabbing trip, and then spending hours cooking her family a crab feast.
Last year, the family had penciled in the trip for the weekend after Sept. 11.
By GRETCHEN PARKER
Associated Press Writer
CHEVY CHASE, Md. — Tom Heidenberger says he won't attend ceremonies marking the anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed his wife.
He won't sit near where her plane plowed into the Pentagon. He won't stand with fellow "survivors," put his hand on his heart for the national anthem or hear "flight attendant Michele MacDonald Heidenberger" read aloud.
He wants to send the message that life goes on. He has dinner with his 15-year-old son, Thomas. He does laundry for his 20-year-old daughter, Alison, when she comes home from college.
And he still flies planes.
Each day he goes to work, Heidenberger pilots the US Airways shuttle between Washington and New York. He flies over the Pentagon, where for weeks after Sept. 11 he saw a black pit where his wife of 30 years died.
"I've got people depending on me. If Dad doesn't come through, or he doesn't keep his game face on, they're not going to make it," he said.
Work is a comforting routine, even though for months he faced awkward moments with crew members and other pilots. No one knew what to say. Recently a flight attendant he didn't know broke down when she tried to tell him she was sorry for his loss.
He's grown used to it, he said, knowing that when his crew looks at him, they see a real-life reflection of their greatest fears.
Heidenberger and his family learned how to take sympathy from strangers at the post office and supermarket. They said, "It's OK, we're fine," when they weren't.
"As I tell my children, not that we are celebrities or stars but just due to the events of that day, friends and family and associates are watching how we behave," he said.
Heidenberger's sister, Betsy Heidenberger, said some relatives at first resented his public appearances -- the races in which he carried an American flag, his appearances on Capitol Hill in support of allowing commercial pilots to carry guns in cockpits. But now they support anything that will help him move on.
Tom Heidenberger says right now, that means getting past the anniversary. He'll spend the day at home with his family, talking about his wife.
"We would like to celebrate Michele's life or mourn her loss as we would like to do it -- as our loss, not everybody else's loss," he said.
At times, the good memories of life with his wife remind him of what he's lost. At other times, they give him a boost.
"You have to put it in the context of, 'Here you are, Tom Heidenberger,
this is your life. Look how good it's been."'