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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.

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"I don't know that I'll ever have peace" with Jeff's death, Sue says. Any mention of American Airlines, or the Transportation Security Administration, still makes her furious. Osama bin Laden's death didn't bring the satisfaction she expected.

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But especially with young kids, life barrels on.

Today, Hannah Qing Yu Mladenik is a fifth-grader with a pink-and-blue daisy manicure; she loves math, gymnastics, and Angry Birds.

This is what she knows about her dad: "He was kind and funny. Like how he used to take the circle cookies and pretend they were his eyes. And for Mother's Day, he would let the kids pick out any things they wanted, so [Mom] has a bunch of funky, silly jewelry. They used to sit in the back of his truck and get ice cream," Hannah says. "And he was just, like, really happy to have me coming."

After Jeff's death, Sue reapplied to adopt Hannah as a single parent. In August 2002, the family traveled to Nanning to bring her home.

"And then, I don't know," Sue says, "I had a brain freeze and decided I should do it again."

Questions not to ask

If your mom is a 9/11 widow and you don't want to make her cry, there are some things you don't ask during Christmas Eve dinner.

"So, like, Daddy's not going to come back alive again, and I'm really not ever going to meet him, right?" is one of those.

But Bethany asks.

Adopted two years after Hannah, from a list of "waiting children" with special needs, Bethany, now 9, is an affectionate chatterbox who loves pandas, breakfast sausage, and the color pink. Like Hannah – and Grace, who was adopted from China three years before Jeff died – Bethany knows Jeff through stories. Though she isn't his daughter in the legal sense, emotionally she is. Bethany sometimes comes into her mom's room in the middle of the night, crying "I miss Daddy."

"Some of my friends say, 'Even though your dad is dead, he's still right next to you, invis-ible,' " Bethany says. But it doesn't really feel that way. "I forget about him sometimes," she admits. "Like when I'm happy, I forget."

How do you give a child a father she will never know? It's a question hundreds of newly single parents and parents-to-be faced after the 9/11 attacks.

Sue rebuilt her life around it: "I see my purpose in life as not letting my children forget their father, and what he stood for, and what kind of man he was. Even the ones that never met him."

Over the years, that has meant different things. When Monitor readers met Sue in 2002, a friend described her as "a walking shrine" to Jeff, covered in commemorative bracelets, pins, and necklaces. Today, her bracelets celebrate the White Sox and breast cancer awareness. Nine years ago, her home was filled with photos and mementos of her husband; now, photos of her kids' milestones crowd the walls and surfaces.

Lives Changed: A decade-long series of stories on the recovery of those most directly affected by the 9/11 attacks.

1. A Queens schoolgirl whose parents were first responders: 2002, 2003

2. A window washer who escaped a stuck twin tower elevator: 2002, 2003

3. An investment banker who left his career to start a ground zero networking nonprofit: 2002, 2003

4. An Iraqi Kurd refugee recast as an enemy and detained because he looked like the hijackers: 2002, 2003, 2011

5. The widow of a passenger on hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 struggled to preserve - and enlarge- her family: 2002, 2003, 2011

6. A World Trade Center tenant who lost her address but added volunteerism to her career portfolio - 2002, 2003

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