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A little girl's heroes behind the heroes

A series profiling six lives since Sept. 11: defining moments in a historic year

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 2002



NEW YORK

One of the few ways to bring an instant scowl to the eager, playful face of 7-year-old Alexia Torres is to ask her about Sept. 11, 2001.

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"I don't remember," she says, her lightly freckled nose suddenly crinkling in intense displeasure. "And I don't want to talk about it." A few seconds later, however, Alexia is tossing her dark, corkscrew curls, and almost unconsciously letting the story tumble from her lips.

"I got really upset," she says, plucking distractedly at her elbows as she recalls burning towers and crashing planes playing and replaying on TV. "I was thinking my mommy could get hurt."

Children all across America were frightened that morning, but Alexia faced more disruption than most. She, too, was to become a victim of the attacks, an indirect casualty whose own personal crisis would play against the backdrop of national tragedy.

Yet exactly as would happen in countless similar ways in the country as a whole, Alexia's smaller drama would rouse the adults around her to come together and triumph through quiet acts of everyday heroism.

Both Alexia's parents are in law enforcement. Her father, Frank, works in the district attorney's office in Queens, but her mother, Carol, was a detective for the New York Police Department, a job Alexia knew could put her close to the front line of the disaster.

When her father finally made it home that night, Alexia had only one question: "When can I see Mommy?"

As it turned out, it was three days before Carol could return home to Queens – and months before the Torreses returned to any semblance of normal family life.

In the interval, Alexia would face serious challenges at school. Frank would struggle to become two parents rolled into one. And Carol would be asked to be a hero for her city, while trusting others to play the role of hero for her child.

But on the night of Sept. 11, all that was clear to Alexia was that for the first time she could remember she'd have to fall asleep without twisting a lock of her mother's hair in her hand as she drifted off.

* * *

Carol and Frank Torres married later in life and cherish their only child almost as a miracle.

But motherhood wasn't Carol's only role. She was also a highly trained police professional with a medical background, expertly qualified for the horrific task of victim identification. She's a curious mix of very tender and very tough. The gruesome scene at the Manhattan morgue didn't unnerve her, but the sadness of the place was almost more than she could bear. Families of victims were calling in a desperate state, seeking information, advice, or just a kindly voice.

"All I was doing was hanging on for their sakes," says Carol.

But one of the most troubling calls came from Alexia, sobbing and begging her mother to come home. "Other people need me more than you do right now," explained Carol.

But Alexia was devastated. "When you love someone so very, very much," she explains, "it's hard to say good-bye."

On Friday, three days after the attacks, Carol was finally able to hurry home for a short break. In that brief interval, she explained to Alexia that she'd be working 12-hour shifts seven days a week for the foreseeable future, able to return home only for short visits.

Within a few hours, Carol's partner, Mark Caruso, came to drive her back to Manhattan. The two had often faced catastrophe together.

"She had seen me cry many times," he says. But that day, for the first time, he saw his stalwart partner dissolve into tears as Alexia wrestled free of her father's grasp and chased, sobbing, after their car.

"The feelings were just so strong that they all burst out," explains Alexia. "I didn't want my mommy to leave."

Carol cried all the way to Manhattan.

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