9/11 hijacking victim's family expanded, even without him
Lives Changed: A decade-long series of profiles of those most directly affected by the 9/11 attacks.
The Mladenik family has adopted two children since 9/11. Even they miss their dad, who died in the hijacking of American Airlines flight 11 before they arrived.
Sugar Grove, Illinois.
The day her dad died, 1-year-old Yuan Qing Yu was waiting in an orphanage in Nanning, China. Jeff and Sue Mladenik, parents of four in Chicago's western suburbs, already considered the bright-eyed baby their daughter. As soon as they got her adoption referral, they planned to travel to Nanning Social Welfare Institute to bring her home. Jeff had already chosen her new name: Hannah.Skip to next paragraph
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Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, the software company executive boarded a plane that never landed. Among the unremarked tragedies of that morning: It left a twice-fatherless baby on the other side of the world.
For the Mladeniks, and other relatives of those who died that day, the legacy of the attacks is personal.
When American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center, Sue Mladenik lost her high school sweetheart and became a single mother of four. With time, she learned to manage her own finances and made the risky decision to refuse more than $2 million from the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund; instead, she sued American Airlines and settled for a substantial sum. She adopted two little girls from China. She questioned her faith. She built a palatial home in "the middle of nowhere," and made numerous charitable gifts in her husband's name. She also maintained a close relationship with Jeff's parents, became a grandmother herself, took up running, hit menopause, streaked her hair pink, and tried dating again.
Since 9/11, Sue's three older kids have struggled to mourn their dad and pull their lives together; now they're starting careers and families. The younger three have grown from needy toddlers and preschoolers into warm, poised, funny young women.
Along the way, Sept. 11 has evolved from a day the Mladeniks dreaded each year into a kind of family holiday, when "Team Mladenik" – Sue and her kids and granddaughter, with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends – celebrates Jeff.
Last year, more than 60 Mladeniks and supporters gathered at Chicago's US Cellular Field to watch daughter Grace, now 14, throw the first pitch at a White Sox game in honor of her dad, a lifelong fan. This month, 15 are spending nine days in New York City, running a 5K race in Jeff's memory, visiting the newly completed 9/11 Memorial Museum, seeing the sights, and remembering the man they loved.