MAXWELL:  The lives left behind after the tragedy

10/31/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


NEW YORK, Oct. 28 _ My family has two urns.

We do not know what these decorative vessels contain.

But we do know this: One memorializes my uncle, the other my second cousin. They were killed in the World Trade Center attacks. My uncle had been a janitor in the north tower since its opening, and my cousin had been a stock clerk in a gift shop there since 1992. They loved their jobs and earned living wages.

I attended Sunday’s memorial at ground zero because I felt duty-bound.

As a survivor of the violent days of the civil rights movement and a former U.S. Marine, I have seen some sad affairs, but nothing prepared me for the shared pain of the 9,000-plus mourners at the site.

My relatives, more than 30, attended the service. They rode on a bus the city provided, and I rode Broadway’s M-20 bus. My ride and later encounters took me beyond my personal grief and that of my family.

On the M-20, I literally felt some other people’s pain. At 72nd Street, a threesome, an older man, a younger man and a pre-teen boy got on. Perhaps because I looked like a native Harlemite, the younger man asked me if our bus took us to ground zero. I said it did.

At 34th Street, a middle-aged couple got on. Because all seats were taken, I gave the woman mine. The man carried a piece of furniture constructed of smooth gray iron tubes. They wore the simple, understated clothes of the wealthy. Why are they riding the bus? I asked myself.

The young man who had asked me about the bus asked me if I knew exactly where the bus stopped. I did not. The man carrying the iron contraption did. He spoke with such expertise that I asked if he lived in Battery Park City. He was eager to tell his story. He and his wife owned an import-export company near Wall Street and lived in an apartment complex a few blocks from the Trade Center. They saw both twin tower attacks unfold.

After the second jet hit the second tower, they ran from their building toward Uptown, stopping when they reached 42nd Street. Their building was demolished because it no longer was structurally sound.

“Until today, we were virtually homeless,” the man said. “We’ve been living with friends on the Upper Eastside. This is our first time being back in the area. We found a small temporary place not far from South Street Seaport. We intend to remain in the area.”

I asked the young man if he and his companions were New Yorkers. They were from Connecticut, and this was their first visit to New York.

Their reason for coming broke my heart.

The boy, 12 years old, had an official invitation to the memorial, which was attended by luminaries such as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. His was a tale I would like to forget. His father, a 26-year-old baker and a single parent, had come to the city for a conference on gourmet breads. He died in the north tower.

As the closest surviving relative, the boy had come to New York to fetch his father’s urn.

Upon hearing this tale, all I could say was: “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry.”

He nodded and smiled through a lattice work of silver braces.

Following the memorial’s music _ Andrew Lloyd Webber, Kathleen Battle and Andrea Bocelli _ and remarks by the likes of Cardinal Edward Egan and the Rev. Franklin Graham, I walked from lower Manhattan to the Theater District. I walked there for a special reason: to speak with the firefighters of Battalion 9, Engine 54, Ladder Company 4, at West 48th Street and Eighth Avenue.

I came here because I know two of the men in the company, which is across the street from a hotel where I regularly stay. I met the men, who survived the World Trade Center disaster, last year when I interviewed them for a column about mandatory national service.

I came here also because I had heard that Ladder Company 4 had suffered a terrible loss in the implosion. It lost 17 men during the first minutes of the chaos. Some left behind several children and unfulfilled hopes and dreams.

While I ate at Jack Rose across the street from the company, two engines, their lights flashing and sirens blasting, roared away and returned nearly an hour later. No matter what happens, I thought, these people do not let sadness paralyze them.

Even with ground zero, a burial ground, mere city blocks away, the job of saving human life must go on. Their courage should be memorialized each day.