A little girl's heroes behind the heroes
A series profiling six lives since Sept. 11: defining moments in a historic year
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.
"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.
* * *
But Carol wasn't the only one in pain. Frank was also asked to work extra hours tightening security in Queens. Unaccustomed to cooking and cleaning, he was finding the management of the household which included Alexia, two cats, and five cockatiels very difficult without Carol.
"We were eating pizza out every night," he recalls. "Everything was a mess. Alexia couldn't sleep. I was delirious."
Many nights he couldn't sleep either, sometimes calling his wife at the morgue at 2 a.m., just to say hello and to hear her voice.
"He had, like, 82 things to take care of. I don't know how he did it," marvels Alexia. "It was an absolutely horrible time," says her father.
Although Frank succeeded at keeping his little girl neat and clean and getting her to school on time, her first-grade teacher knew immediately that all was not well.
"Alexia would complain that her hair wasn't fixed right," remembers Allison Liebowitz, the pint-sized, energetic young teacher at Public School 101. "She would say, 'Daddy can't cook. I couldn't find the dress I wanted.' "
Miss Liebowitz knew what Alexia's parents did for a living and was well aware of the strain they were living under.
When the terrorist attacks first occurred, Liebowitz had been profoundly grateful that none of the children in her charge had lost a parent. But as Alexia's schoolwork slipped dangerously behind that of her classmates, the teacher realized that she was after all being asked to deal with a youthful victim.
The New York City fire and police officers lost in the attacks were being widely celebrated, but there was perhaps less recognition that the ones still here were continuing to work heroically, sometimes to the detriment of their families and their personal lives.
Liebowitz knew exactly how bright and creative the little girl was. But she also saw that she wasn't learning to read.
In part, she recognized, Alexia was unsettled by her mother's absence. "She kept thinking the buildings could get hit again, her mother might be in danger."
And certainly fear and frustration had much to do with Alexia's troubles. "Sometimes I missed my mommy so much that it was hard to hear what the teacher was saying," Alexia recalls. At least once she asked to go to the bathroom, only to sit on the tile floor and cry.
But Liebowitz knew Alexia well enough to know that a problem existed before Sept. 11. She had already seen Alexia turn her adorable Shirley Temple looks and sparkling personality to her own advantage.
"She knew she was cute enough to get by without doing much work," says Liebowitz. "She used to just toss her hair and say to an adult, 'I can't do this, can you do it for me?' She was distracted by what was going on, but I also knew she was lazy."
Liebowitz worried that if Alexia fell behind at this crucial time, she might never catch up. Much as she disliked further troubling the Torreses at such a difficult time, she sent a note home.
"Carol came to see me and she was hysterical, she was so worried," remembers Liebowitz. "The last thing I wanted her to have to feel was that her own child was being left behind while she was so busy being a hero for others."
Although Carol couldn't see it on that dark day, there was another team of heroes already close at hand.
* * *
Don Clancy was working as a tutor at Alexia's school. A trim, distinguished man with a head of smooth iron-gray hair, Mr. Clancy was a hero in the literal sense a World War II fighter pilot awarded medals for courage. But since retiring as a vice president at CBS, he'd become a hero in a different sense, joining up with Learning Leaders, a non-profit group that places tutors in New York's public schools.
Now Liebowitz asked Clancy to take up work with Alexia. He began arriving in the little girl's classroom every Tuesday and Thursday, right after the Pledge of Allegiance. They'd quietly tackle spelling, math, and writing assignments for about 40 minutes.
Clancy's first observation was that his lively new charge who begged him to play games with her instead of doing assignments was in need of authority.
"Sometimes I would just have to tell her, 'Ali, sit down here and if you get up, I'm leaving,' " he recalls. "I had to be a bit of the drill sergeant."
Whatever work he and Alexia couldn't complete in the morning, Liebowitz would pick up with her in the afternoon.
At the same time, Liebowitz was offering a few lessons to Frank Torres as well. Despite his own long hours, Frank had been trying to do homework with Alexia at night. But between Frank's fatigue and Alexia's gift for avoiding work, most evenings ended with ice cream, extra TV, and Frank filling in the answers for Alexia.
"She had him conned. She'd tell him she just couldn't get things. He'd come to me and say, 'Maybe this is too abstract for Alexia,' " says Liebowitz. "I'd have to tell him, 'No, she can do this.' "
It took time and effort, says Liebowitz, but Frank learned not to melt every time Alexia rolled her big, dark eyes at him.
Meanwhile, Clancy and Alexia were plugging away at reading and at lengthening Alexia's attention span. Although Clancy felt tremendous sympathy for the child whose life had been turned upside down so abruptly by the events of Sept. 11, he was too much a hero of the old-school to accept that as an excuse for poor work.
Then one November day, as they looked at a story-book about ants, Alexia suddenly began to read out loud on her own.
Clancy still remembers the way her face shone as the words finally began making sense to her.
"It was like I entered into a whole new world," beams Alexia, recalling the moment.
From there on, Alexia the student grew by leaps and bounds. "Once she got it, she really came on strong," says Clancy.
In May, Liebowitz named Alexia Student of the Month.
* * *
Today life is back to normal for Alexia and the adults who surround her although "normal," of course, is different now. For one thing, Alexia, although a star student and effervescent as ever, is less able to have her way with adults around her. She'll have a new teacher this year, but Liebowitz vows to keep an eye on her former pupil.
Carol retired from the police force on April 30. She actually completed 20 years in November and could have retired then but hung on until she was no longer so desperately needed.
"My wife was the true hero in all this," says Frank. "Our daughter is the most important thing in our lives. To break away from her and go back to work took real strength."
But Carol sees Clancy and Liebowitz as the heroes a support squad pitching in and taking over when she couldn't.
Liebowitz, for her part, insists Alexia's turnaround is really a story about great teamwork, the way that she and Clancy and Carol and Frank all pulled together.
"What I think we all learned," says Frank, "is that we can't just focus on our own family or our own daughter. It has to be our school, our community. We all have to give to one another."
It's a lesson that has shaped Carol's new schedule for the fall. In addition to a part-time nursing job, she'll devote one day a week to a new activity. Inspired both by Clancy's example and a deep sense of gratitude for what happened to Alexia, Carol now works alongside Clancy who is thrilled to have her as a colleague as a volunteer tutor at Alexia's school.
But for Alexia, the best thing about the "new" normal is actually the way in which it resembles the past. "Second grade will be great," she predicts with her trademark sunny smile. "I won't need a tutor, and Mommy will be able to pick me up every day."