Moving forward, thinking back
Most Americans have their private memories associated with that fall morning when terrorism descended, altering a city skyline, a military stronghold, a parcel of farmland, and the national ethos. But for some people more than others, the date represents a stark divider between disparate lives: one lived before Sept. 11, 2001, and one lived since.
Last year, the Monitor sought out a handful of those most directly affected by the events of that day, chronicling their Sept. 11 experiences and their first 12 months of recovery.
Today, with another year gone by, we revisit those individuals. Their stories, updated, offer evidence of further healing, and of areas where more progress remains to be made.
When Cameran Sadeq speaks of his life now, a brightness enlivens his Kurdish-accented speech.
He shows no fatigue, despite having just returned home, at 9 p.m., from a 10-hour shift as a cook at a local pizza joint in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Instead, Mr. Sadeq seems to revel in his industry. His 60-hour work weeks are a means to a life that he has so desperately wanted for more than a decade now - since the Iraqi refugee first fled the terror campaigns that Saddam Hussein waged against his people.
Now, for the first time, Sadeq can see that life within his grasp - with his job, a car, and a baby on the way.
It is an almost complete reversal from his life of one year ago, when his words rasped with frustration and anger toward the United States.
He had come to America seeking safety from Mr. Hussein, gaining refugee status. Instead, he said last year, the 4-1/2 months he spent in a federal detention center after being caught up in the post-Sept. 11 antiterror roundup "destroyed my life."
As he sat behind bars for weeks after he was cleared by the FBI, a trucking job vanished. So, too, did his car, and his clothes and furniture - tossed out by the landlord of his Detroit apartment.
All he had left was his wife - a woman he had met long ago in a Syrian refugee camp, lost, then located in Winnipeg years later through a friend. They had married only weeks before he was detained, and when he was eventually freed he abandoned any hope of a life in America and joined her in Canada. Vowing never to return to the US, he arrived in Winnipeg with the clothes on his back, a $10 bill, and thousands of dollars in debt.
"Now it is so different," he says.
The sense of injustice that colored every phrase a year ago has been replaced by the excitement of expectation. With his working papers in order, he has a job that has filled him with hope. He has all new furniture for the apartment. He has a computer with an Internet connection and a 1995 Chevy Cavalier. More than anything, he once again has pride. He has whittled his debts from more than $7,000 to about $2,000, with some help from Monitor readers who sent him $1,600 in unsolicited donations.
"My English is not that much good, so I don't know what to say to them," he says. "But I so much appreciate that."
His views of America are perhaps more conflicted now. He is grateful that the US has ousted Hussein. But, he adds, "it is not nice that there is no government. People are killing each other; stealing, breaking, and there is no answer." Likewise, he doesn't reject the idea of returning to America. If he did, though, he says he would sue the government to get back the money he lost while in detention.
Today, though, his thoughts are elsewhere. Sadeq has already started looking at furniture for the baby, and he's considering a move to Calgary, where the Kurdish population is larger. But that's a year or two down the road. For now, "I'm continuing the life," he says warmly, and "I am so, so, so, so happy."
- Mark Sappenfield
Who would she be now if her husband hadn't died on that plane? Not a single mother of five, says Sue Mladenik. Not alone at night when the kids are asleep.
Certainly not a driving force behind a campaign to move ashes from New Jersey's Fresh Kills landfill to a memorial at the footprint of the World Trade Center towers, so that her husband and some 2,800 others can have a real resting place.
She would, though, have been one thing she is today: the new mother of 2-year-old Hannah Qing Yu, who's made the past year's transition from a Chinese orphanage to her suburban Chicago home at a run, slowing only to master the word "mine." Ms. Mladenik and her husband, Jeff, had put the adoption process in motion together.
Like all parents she has been in a whirl. Caught up in daily rounds of 6-year-old Grace's soccer and ballet and birthdays, Mladenik admits she might have been one of those Americans who finds Sept. 11 relatively easy to forget.
"I often find myself wondering, if Jeff wasn't on that plane, would I be as focused on it as I am," she says. "Of course now I think everyone is too quick to move on, to get the buildings built, the office space, the bus terminal. But could that have been me too?"
Last September, Mladenik would recoil when acquaintances called up, reached out to her in stores - drawn, she feared, by her grisly celebrity. Today, she's turned that angry energy to giving her husband's death meaning.
She's met with senators, organized a support group for the families of Midwestern victims, and helped mobilize the national petition drive for the World Trade Center Families For Proper Burial. She lobbied for an independent Sept. 11 investigation and weighed in on the design of the memorial. She's appeared on the CBS early show and the John Walsh show, and spoken to newspapers.
Still, she's a mom first. So she worries about Daniel, her third oldest, who went off by air to college this year in Colorado, despite his vow never to fly again. And about Gracie, who a year ago could hardly express her grief. Now it catches Mladenik by surprise at birthdays, graduations. At the end of Grace's first ballet recital last spring, when all the other girls' dads were running to them, swinging them in the air, the child became hysterical.
At breakfast one morning this summer, Gracie turned to her mother and asked, "When are we going to bury Dada's body?"
Mladenik tried to answer calmly: "I don't know, Gracie," she recalls saying. "We have to wait until all the identifications are made."
"What are those?" Grace asked.
"When they know who all the people who died are," Mladenik told her, and Grace went back to her Cheerios.
"I don't know what to do for my children," Mladenik says. "That's where I'm failing." These days, she says, it's easiest to comfort baby Hannah, who never knew her father. Hannah will point at photographs of Jeff, or the necklace with the hologram of his face that Mladenik always wears, and say, "Dada."
"But I don't think she has any concept of what a Dada is," Mladenik says.
- Mary Wiltenburg
In almost all respects, the past 12 months of Alexia Torres's life have been happy ones.
In school, the bubbly 8-year-old sailed through second grade with top honors, twice nominated by her teacher as student of the month. Outside school she welcomed the birth of a baby cousin, romped at her family's new summer home in the Catskills, and rescued three stray kittens and a wounded bird.
But as the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on her city approaches, the little girl is not yet free of painful memories.
"I get sad," she says at any mention of the events that took place two years ago. But mostly, she adds, "I don't want to let my mommy go anywhere without me."
The day the World Trade Center towers fell, Alexia was even more frightened than most New York City schoolchildren. She knew that her mother - then a detective with the city police force - would be in the thick of the action, and she feared for her safety.
But Carol Torres was not assigned to ground zero. Instead, beginning immediately that day, she was asked to spend several grueling months working at the city morgue identifying victims from the site. It was work so demanding that for weeks on end she was barely able to see her only child.
Her mother's absence was a blow that almost undid young Alexia. Her father, Frank, who works for the district attorney's office in Queens, struggled to fill the gap but had to work extended hours himself due to security concerns throughout the city.
Meanwhile, Alexia, scared and unhappy, was slipping further and further behind in the early months of first grade. She wasn't leaning to read. Her teacher, Allison Liebowitz, began to worry she might not catch up, and that the Torres family, in trying to help others, might themselves become indirect victims of the attacks.
But soon Ms. Liebowitz, together with a volunteer tutor at Alexia's school, took the struggling child under her wing. Before too long Alexia had not only mastered reading, but also learned from her new mentors an improved sense of discipline and focus.
Once the immediate crisis had past, Torres retired from the police force. Full of gratitude for what had been done for her daughter, she began working with other people's children as a volunteer tutor like the one who helped Alexia. Now she's contemplating a career working for the city, providing special services for children.
Life today is good for the Torres family, Carol says happily, and for the most part they simply don't speak or think much about Sept. 11, 2001.
But, of course, it troubles her that she hasn't been able to leave the house to fill the bird feeder or take out the garbage without Alexia dissolving into tears and chasing after her. Since the dayof the attacks, Alexia seems unable to bear to let her mother out of her sight.
"That's the one thing that hasn't healed for us yet," Torres says.
- Marjorie Coeyman
This year, Sept. 12 doesn't mean what Martin Cowart expected it would. One year ago, he and his cousin Courtney were days away from the launch of the Nine-Twelve Community, a lower-Manhattan nonprofit they hoped would harness the community spirit of 15,000 World Trade Center rescue workers and volunteers in some lasting way.
Mr. Cowart was out of work. He'd just lost his apartment of 14 years and his relationship of 16. He was ready to make changes - in his life, and in his community - and he thought Nine-Twelve might be the way to do that.
This September, the organization's 10 founding members have gone their separate ways, "to lick their wounds and try to regroup to find a new vision for what Nine-Twelve can be," Cowart says. Ten months heading relief efforts from Trinity Church's St. Paul's Chapel at the edge of the disaster site left them all emotionally ragged. Though Cowart had burned with energy when he was feeding hungry workers and listening to their stories - his cousin, who worked at Trinity, had called him asking for assistance - it was harder to know how to help when the cleanup was complete.
Still, somehow, in those hard months at ground zero, Cowart learned to "play" - that's the word he uses.
Today, he's excited about his return to his former career as a mortgage banker; about a new relationship; about his changing sense of spirituality. Something about "the, just, outpouring of love - not Hallmark love, but real human connection - that you saw at the site" woke him up, he says, to the joy in his own life.
Before Sept. 11, Cowart's life was narrower. His partner had been white and Southern, and had attended the same college as Cowart. His jobs, he says, defined him and restricted his outlook. At ground zero, his ability to comfort people from backgrounds nothing like his own surprised him, gave him a sense that "I'm Martin Cowart first: Whatever I do for a living is just what I do."
In his youth, Cowart was active in the Presbyterian Church, as an adult in the Episcopal, but that involvement rarely guided his personal choices, or his choices of friends. It was the ecumenical nature of the ground-zero effort that perhaps changed Cowart the most. Hearing "construction guys having conversations that had more spiritual strength and power, more ability to comfort people, than someone standing in a pulpit with a PhD in theology" undid his need for the organized church. He's now exploring Buddhism and other traditions less familiar to him.
These days, he says, there's some distance between him and old friends who say they're "not spiritual people." In new friends, he's drawn to those unashamed of their spiritual lives. Though he doesn't want to hang onto the past, Cowart says, that's his way of keeping the spirit of ground zero alive.
- Mary Wiltenburg
She has worked her way back downtown, back into an apartment she first picked in early 2000 for its proximity to that late, great landmark on lower Manhattan - the place from which she would ultimately run four small financial firms.
For Ariel Goodman, a lot has changed besides the twin-towers view that she had when she last lived at Battery Park City.
Ms. Goodman fled the residential complex in a dark storm of ash on Sept. 11, 2001. Within months she had overridden her strong preference for privacy and cast herself as a full-blown advocate, focusing her energy on the plight of those survivors whose painstakingly built professional worlds had - like hers - been erased.
A year ago Goodman spent her days chasing forms, walking from one government-agency office to the next from her temporary Midtown base, her companies just marking time, her personal life on hold.
Today, she says, she's still devoting only about 25 percent of her waking hours to her mutual-fund and advisory work, working from home. She remains active in From the Ground Up, the nonprofit advocacy group she helped found. But most of the time Goodman is "consumed" with mopping up from her own Sept. 11 losses.
"It's hard to make decisions, to make plans, the way things drag out," she says. By "things" Goodman means practically every area in which her life intersects with bureaucracy in all its forms.
"I finally settled with my insurance company, for 20 cents on the dollar, about six weeks ago," she says. She's unsatisfied with the "rush job" she says the Environmental Protection Agency did in cleaning her downtown apartment in April - a full four months after she moved back in.
Get Goodman going on the work of just about any federal or city agencyand she sounds like someone who's running for officeon a reformer's platform. (She has no immediate plans to try politics.)
"If you look at the way they present the statistics, they'll say 'Oh, well, 80 percent of the people want to bury the West Side Highway.' And if you look at how many [of those polled] are really stakeholders - people who really live and work down there - it's less than 30 percent." Goodman is deeply concerned about her small-business community.
"Two years out, this is the worst time for us," she says. Loans from the Small Business Association, against which many business owners put up homes as collateral, have come due. Aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, generally good for 18 months, has ended. "Now you're going to see people pushed to the brink," she says.
Still, she also sees bright spots. A restaurant near her place, closed for 25 months, is set to reopen. And work at the World Trade Center site gives her hope. "I'm dying for something to go back up there," she says. "I wish it was the original towers, built bigger and better."
And there are signs of a real life for Goodman herself. She went on her first vacation in years, to Russia, in July. "I took a ton of tours," she says. "It really made me feel feel happy and alive."
- Clayton Collins