We Will Never Forget
Illustration by Bunky Hurter
For the thousands of friends and family members who lost someone on 9/11, the past decade has been filled with pain and sadness, as well as hope and healing. Five Greenwich families take us on their journey that began the day the world changed forever, the day ...
Ten years have passed since Muslim extremists turned commercial jetliners into weapons of mass destruction and took 2,976 innocent lives at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed. To understand the effect that the attacks had on the United States, one need only look at the outpouring of emotion after President Barack Obama told the nation this spring that Navy Seals had killed Osama bin Laden.
The events of September 11th touched every American. An ongoing war in Afghanistan, millions of dollars spent on homeland security, and a once unimaginable scrutiny at the airport are all part of the price that each of us continues to pay. Yet those who lost family and friends that day have in many ways been on a separate journey. Although most adults have experienced loss and may even have had a loved one die under violent conditions, relatively few of us know what it’s like to carry our grief when it comes amid a national tragedy. The reminders are constant. Media coverage is relentless. And public awareness is so widespread that grieving in any normal sense becomes almost impossible.
“Once (people) hear that you lost a family member in 9/11 you’re immediately treated differently, which is the worst thing for somebody who lost a family member,” says Dr. David Grand, a Long Island psychotherapist who has worked with those affected by the events of that day. “You’re spending so much time trying to normalize the experience and everybody around you is doing the opposite.”
In the end, each individual must find his own path. What the survivors of those who died share, however, are wounds that are deep and abiding. “Sometimes we forget just how many people were involved,” says Donna A. Gaffney, a New Jersey-based grief counselor and advisor to Families of September 11, a support and advocacy group. “We all know the numbers, that nearly 3,000 people died. But if you look at how many people were left grieving for those 3,000, we could be talking another 10,000 to 15,000 people. And that doesn’t count friends and colleagues.”
Twenty-six individuals with ties to Greenwich, most of whom lived in town at one time or another, were killed on 9/11. For the past ten years, the people they left behind have traveled their own hard roads. Here are the stories of some of them: two parents, a spouse, a child and a sibling. Their accounts open a window into the suffering that September 11th wrought as well as the courage of human beings to forge on in the face of tragedy and emerge from darkness.
Healing with Gratitude
When someone compliments Susan Wohlforth on the beauty of her Greenwich home, she is appreciative but can’t help thinking that the place is less well kept than when her husband Martin, who everyone knew as Buff, doted over it. When she dreams of him, she is in bliss, basking in the fleeting moments between sleep and wakefulness, in which she feels he is still with her. And when she watches an old film and sees the towers of the World Trade Center looming over Manhattan, she privately mourns. “Oh, my God,” she thinks, “I would give anything to go back to when that movie was made.”
Buff, who was forty-seven, was managing director for Sandler O’Neill & Partners, an investment bank, on the 104th floor of the South Tower. When the North Tower was struck, he called Susan at home to report that he was all right and that he was about to evacuate. Susan proceeded to head out to a meeting at the Junior League, where she was then president. But then the second plane hit and she rushed home, trying in vain to reach him on her cell phone. Buff, as it turned out, called her at the Junior League, spoke briefly with the secretary, but failed to reach Susan.
Staring at the television, Susan saw the South Tower go down. Instinctively, she knew that Buff had died. But daughter Chloe, then sixteen, was clinging to hope and Susan couldn’t bear to take that from her. They went for a week, posting “missing” fliers in New York, among other efforts, then surrendered to the truth.
So much was so difficult in those first days. Susan repeatedly comes back to her gratitude to everyone who came to her side—family, friends, the Junior League, the Red Cross, the United Way. It wasn’t that she thought she couldn’t handle all that was before her, be it raising her daughter alone, the finances and all else that was lurking. She knew she couldn’t.
“And what I’ve learned is that you can,” Susan says today. “I’ve learned that we are a lot stronger than we think we are, and we are a lot more resourceful than we know we are. ‘You can do it’ is the bottom line.”
Nothing brought that message home more powerfully than the day, not long after the attacks, that she went to Ground Zero. After taking a ferry down the Hudson River with other victims’ families, Susan was accompanied to the site by a Coast Guard captain who held one of her arms and a slip of a woman from the Red Cross who grasped the other. She remembers walking through apocalypse-like streets and balking as they neared their destination, murmuring “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“And the woman turned me to face her straight on, and she looked at me and said, ‘I’m here to tell you that you’re going to be fine, that you’re going to be OK, that I know this, and I promise you this.’ As I’m thinking, ‘How can you tell me that?’ she said, ‘I can tell you this because I lost my husband in the Oklahoma City bombing.’ That did more for me than anything because I realized that she did know. It was such an incredible moment.”
Chloe went on to Princeton, her dad’s alma mater, and unexpectedly followed his footsteps into the financial industry. Susan, for her part, immersed herself in volunteering. To bring more structure into her week and to have more interaction with folks, she also took a part-time job at a consignment shop in town.
Susan describes herself as “one of the lucky of the unlucky.” Other trials have come since 9/11, such as family members who have taken ill. But she meets each day with gratitude, focusing on the good rather than what’s been taken. “I’ve been given so much,” she says. “And I wonder if I would have known or understood if September 11th hadn’t happened.”
Soothing the Pain
Ralph Sabbag had just arrived at his office in Cranbury, New Jersey, where he worked as an oil trader, when a colleague told him that an airliner had struck the first building at the World Trade Center. Sabbag’s son Jason, who was twenty-six, was an associate portfolio manager for the Fiduciary Trust Company in one of the towers, but the father was uncertain which one. Anxiety mounting, he hurried back to his home in Cos Cob. It was on that drive, on a strip of the New Jersey Turnpike, that he got a clear view of the destruction of the towers.
Jason, meanwhile, was working on the 94th floor of the South Tower. Many of his coworkers had ignored announcements that their building was in no danger and had fled. But Jason stayed behind for a meeting and was never heard from again.
For Ralph, his wife Brigitte, their other two children and friends, the following days were a blur of blind hope and calls to area hospitals to see if Jason was among the injured. “We tried for ten days or so, everyplace, everywhere, but we had no good news whatsoever,” says the father.
Of all the people from Greenwich who lost someone on September 11th, Sabbag might be the most recognizable. He received a lot of attention for taking on the town in a public dispute over what names would be listed on the memorial plaque on Great Captain’s Island. Greenwich officials had wanted to include only those victims who lived here on the day of the attacks. Sabbag, whose son grew up in town, took umbrage and successfully fought for Jason and others to be included.
Less talked about was how deeply Sabbag and his family had been affected by the death of his son. Finding refuge in his work, Ralph pushed back his retirement. The commute, however, with all its emotional triggers, became too much, and he pressured his company to open a Greenwich office. “One hour crying on the way up and one hour crying on the way down, it was impossible for me,” he says. His wife, a real estate broker, never returned to work. And their son Cliff moved to California for a time, to get away from the constant reminders of his older brother’s death.
Sabbag says that even today his first thought upon awakening is Jason. “The wound is no longer bleeding,” he says. “But it’s still there. That wound will always be there.”
The Sabbags run a scholarship in Jason’s name at Georgetown University, where their son went to school, and tend a memorial bench for him at Greenwich Point. They’re among the hardcore faithful at the annual 9/11 ceremonies around the area. They have also become friends with the German parents of Sebastian Gorki, a Deutsche Bank representative who was with Jason when he died.
The New York medical examiner’s office has had Jason’s remains for a while now, but the Sabbags have been reluctant to take possession. Funeral arrangements have been made and canceled. “We didn’t want to face reality,” Sabbag says. This year, however, he expects they will go forward, that it is time.
Beyond that, Ralph plans to finally retire next year. That should give him more time to follow the University of North Carolina basketball team, for whom he fervently roots. Sabbag admits that he has no personal connection to the Tarheels, other than that it was Jason’s favorite team. “It’s just to get as close to him as much as possible,” he says.
Finding Signs of Hope
On what would have been their brother Kevin Cleary’s forty-eighth birthday this spring, Maureen Colligan and her sister Patty were out shopping when they noticed a balloon that had gotten loose from somewhere and was floating skyward. Immediately, they looked at each other and exclaimed, “A sign!”
Who is to say that Kevin, a stockbroker and aspiring actor, hadn’t found a way to let his family know that he heard their prayerful birthday greetings and that he was still with them? He certainly knew that his big Irish-Catholic family was always on the lookout for auspicious happenings. “We’re all about signs,” is how Maureen, a longtime Greenwich resident, puts it. “So whenever we get something significant that reminds us of him, anything in the way of nature or music, we equate it to a sign. It makes us feel good that he’s watching over us.”
Maureen, who had just had a baby that August, was watching Live with Regis and Kelly when news of the first crash hit. At first, she failed to connect the situation to Kevin. But when she called Patty, her sister told her, “Maureen, Kevin has got to get out of there!” After a flurry of calls, everything seemed OK. Kevin had called his mother to say he was fine, that he wasn’t in the stricken tower. All that changed minutes later when the second plane hit.
That day the family gathered at the mother’s home in Bronxville and waited for word. “Every time the phone rang we were hoping it was him,” says Maureen. “After a while we decided to walk down into town to get some food, and every time the train pulled up we felt that he was going to hop out.”
That Maureen and husband, Paul, have three children helps to keep her focused on the present. But every now and then, when someone mentions the word “closure,” she bristles. “Closure and 9/11 are not compatible in the same sentence,” she says. “They never will be. You wind up carrying on. You’re living your life because you have to. You have a family or you have other responsibilities. So that’s what you do: You just keep carrying on.”
For a while Maureen avoided social activities, knowing that when she walked into a room, the whispers would start. Or, as time went on, she might be at a sporting event or a party and find herself actually having a good time until someone would mention 9/11. “When you’re at this good space and somebody brings it up, it brings you to this whole other space,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Do I have to go there now?’”
As her kids well know, she is always happy to talk about Kevin. For five years or so, she attended the anniversary memorials in New York. But then, she began commemorating her brother in a more personal way. Instead of going into the city on September 11th, Maureen and her husband took to visiting the old neighborhood in Scarsdale where she and Kevin grew up (Kevin lived in Greenwich for a few years). They go by the Clearys’ old house, the grammar school, deli, candy store and park. “I kind of went down memory lane,” Maureen says, “and that made me feel a lot better.”
So it is that like many others she spent time this year gathering material from Kevin’s life to be included in a display at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum when it opens this month. “As the date 9/11 gets closer, it always seems like it was yesterday,” she says. “But living on a day-to-day basis, I feel like I haven’t seen Kevin for a very, very long time.”
Pushing Through the Pain
For Sally Maloney, the last weeks of her oldest son Teddy’s life were bright with hope and expectation. He and his wife Brinley already had one young daughter, Mason, with another on the way. The thirty-two-year-old had just accepted a new position as a trader with Cantor Fitzgerald. And though he was working in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, the commute into Manhattan was going to be temporary. Teddy had made it known that he wanted to be near his home in Darien, so he could be there for his growing family.
“We talked every day on the phone,” says Sally, who lives in Greenwich. “Just before he left his old job, I had taken a whole roll of pictures of Mason. When I called him, he said, ‘Are they good?’ I was so excited to show them to him that I drove up to his office in Stamford, and he came out and we sat in the car and looked at pictures for fifteen minutes.”
After Teddy’s death, Sally and her husband Eddie made the decision to return to their respective jobs as a real estate broker and as a furniture sales representative sooner rather than later. It was important, they felt, for their other adult children, Mark and Sally, to understand that they had to resist being consumed by the pain and to push on. “It was really just trying to be a parent and setting the example that you just can’t sit home and grieve and cry, even though we were dying inside as we knew they were,” she says.
And though she told no one, Sally herself had panic attacks and depression so heavy that some days she was unable to get out of bed. She also developed a powerful fear, which waned over time, that tragedy would befall someone else in her family.
Sally knows that many of the grief stricken have benefited from psychological counseling. Still, her own visits to mental health professionals in the wake of her son’s death proved less than helpful. “One of them, this woman, ended up crying when I started to tell her this story,” she says. “I had to get up and go around the desk and give her a hug.”
Initially, she had no reaction whatsoever to the President’s announcement that Osama bin Laden was dead. Within an hour or two, however, all the pain she’d kept inside over the years surged to the surface in a “visceral, savage kind of reaction.” She wound up in the hospital with peritonitis, which her doctor felt certain was tied to the reopening of old wounds.
Teddy is far from forgotten. For years, friends and family have held a golf tournament, the Big Dog Classic, a reference to his nickname, in Rye, where Teddy spent his early years before the family moved to Greenwich. And in 2002, Proctor Academy, the New Hampshire prep school where he played lacrosse and hockey, named its new ice-skating facility after him. The Teddy Maloney Rink is also known as “the Ted.”
Sally and her husband have shied away from public memorial services. They keep Teddy’s spirit alive more privately—in their memories, conversation, and in toasts at the holidays. That’s to say nothing of their son’s greatest legacy: daughters Mason, eleven, and Teddy, nine, two of Sally’s ten grandchildren. Brinley has since remarried and the girls have a younger sister as well. And though Sally admits to a certain heartache when she sees the girls, playing sports or when they come to visit, there’s immeasurable joy as well. “They’re well aware of him,” Sally says. “Teddy’s picture is everywhere, in all our houses.”
Carrying on the Love
One of Louisa Fisher’s fondest memories of her father is also one of her last. She had just moved to Boston and came down to Connecticut for an end-of-the-summer week with her parents and brother. Ben Fisher loved sailing, and one day he and his daughter went out on Long Island Sound just by themselves. “It was a beautiful day,” Louisa recalls. “You could see New York City. And we talked about our memories of sailing and being out on the water.”
Two days after that visit, back in Massachusetts, she was awakened by a telephone call from a friend telling her that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. She turned on the television to see the first tower burning, and then the second jet striking like a missile. She had tried calling her dad, a senior vice president for the Fiduciary Trust Company, who worked on the 97th floor of the South Tower, but was unable to get through. Nor could she reach her mother, Susan, who was teaching at a school in Rye.
Louisa spent the next hour in disbelief and worry, taking calls from concerned friends. “What I could see on TV did not look good,” she remembers. “And I knew he was one of those people that didn’t ever miss work. He got there early.”
Louisa, who was then twenty-six, moved back home to be with her mother, who lives just over the Greenwich line in Stamford. Much of that year would be spent tending to the aftermath of her father’s death. There was paperwork to settle, visits to Ground Zero, claiming his body, which was recovered that January, and spreading his ashes on the Sound. The time shared with her mother would be a blessing, as they carried one another through the toughest of times. “We became closer than we were before,” Louisa says.
That winter, Louisa reached out to President Bush, Governor John Rowland, and others, in a letter in which she told of her gratitude for all the support that she and her family received from so many people, even strangers. The country came together in the days after the attacks, she wrote, and it was that spirit that helped pull her through. On the morning of the six-month anniversary, she got a surprise call from the governor, asking if he could read some of her letter at a memorial service that day. As it turned out, Louisa’s missive served as the centerpiece of Rowland’s speech.
Her dad’s death left her unmoored. Nor did it help that she was uncertain what she wanted to do with her life or what kind of work would fulfill her. For almost two years, she says, she felt like a “lost soul.” As it turned out, she went on to graduate school for clinical mental health counseling. Today she lives in New Hampshire and works helping military families cope with deployment issues.
She, her brother Jamie, and their mother keep Ben alive in their thoughts. They speak of him frequently. If they are out sailing or skiing, someone will inevitably comment on how much he would have enjoyed being there. And on his birthday, the Fishers fire off one of some miniature cannons that were passed down on his side of the family, in tribute.
“Definitely, time heals,” says Louisa. “However, I call it a roller coaster ride because you never know when it’s going to hit you. You could have a conversation with someone and be fine or you could have someone ask you a question and you break down. It’s always near the surface. And though you can heal, that doesn’t mean that it’s gone, or that it still doesn’t hurt.”
A piece of the World Trade Center comes to Greenwich to honor the lives lost and the locals who lent a hand.
from the moment sandy kornberg laid eyes on the rusting girder, he was awestruck. For a year and a half he had waited for this moment. But nothing prepared him for how he would feel when he finally took possession of the weighty artifact. “I was just absolutely amazed, so surprised, and extremely happy,” Kornberg says. “It’s an iconic piece of the World Trade Center, in my opinion.”
In another context, the eight-and-a-half foot, 1,633-pound steel beam would be considered just a piece of construction debris. Given the events of September 11, 2001, it is both a relic and a mnemonic device for the powerful mix of emotions that Americans experienced that
day. This month, the girder will go on display at the Glenville fire station, where Kornberg serves as president of the volunteer fire company.
“It’s a remembrance of those citizens who died and also of the rescue workers who sacrificed their lives,” says Frank Napolitano, a Glenville volunteer fire captain who is also a lawyer in town. “And considering that our company had a small role in responding, we think there’s some nexus there and it should be recognized.”
Napolitano tells of being in Manhattan and noticing the first of the planes speeding toward its mark, hearing the impact, and seeing the crippled North Tower. In Greenwich, meanwhile, Glenville’s Ladder 4, manned by Kornberg and two other firefighters, was summoned to Valhalla, in Westchester County. There, amid a sea of apparatuses from throughout the area, they waited deep into the evening, in case their help was needed. That call never came, but two weeks later, Kornberg, Napolitano and fellow Glenville firefighters Anthony Medico and Andrew Maloney took a day of their own time to help with rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero.
Two years ago, Kornberg learned that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the World Trade Center site, was taking applications from civic organizations that wanted steel for memorials. He sent a letter on behalf of the volunteer fire company, and in May a girder was ready to be given over.
Kornberg and a driver showed up at Kennedy International Airport’s Hangar 17 with a flatbed truck and an American flag to drape over their cargo for its journey to Glenville. The girder has short, cut-off beams bolted to both ends and remnants of concrete on it. “They don’t know which building it came from, but I was told that to the best of their determination it was an internal I-beam that was used to bridge and attach internal flooring,” he says.
It is not the first sample of the destruction to find its way to Greenwich. In 2004, teenager Andrew Nitkin, now a senior at Bucknell University, built a memorial garden for the UJA Federation that features a three-foot segment of steel from the Twin Towers as its centerpiece. Andrew, who created the sanctuary for his Eagle Scout project, obtained that section of beam from a New York City fire station that had saved a girder during the cleanup and divided it up for public memorials.
For its part, the Port Authority fulfilled 1,100 requests for salvaged steel. More than thirty communities in Connecticut, including New Canaan, Fairfield, Easton, and Bridgeport, have received pieces for public display.
For anyone who remembers that day, the memorials are sure to summon deep-seated feelings, of the horror, anger, pride, and unity that every American felt ten years ago. “Every time I look at that piece of metal, I think of the day we were down there,” says Kornberg. “It was worse than any war zone I could ever imagine. That’s a thought that will stay with me forever.”
On Sunday, September 11, the Greenwich September 11th Remembrance Committee will honor those lost with a tribute ceremony in front of Town Hall beginning at 6:30 p.m.