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9/11: Ordinary people, extraordinary stories


A hundred times I have thought:
New York is a catastrophe,
and fifty times:
It is a beautiful catastrophe.
            –Swiss architect Le Corbusier

Given that the country’s (as well as the world’s) attention is focused on the recession and the economy, the recent British Petroleum Gulf coast tragedy, and the recent withdrawal of a large contingent of U.S. troops from the Iraq, the anniversary of the Sept.11th tragedy might be overlooked. In the face of such extreme human suffering, it is comforting to see that the American people still have the resilience to pull together in the face of adversity.

As with any tragedy, there are those among us who chose to come out of the woodwork to point fingers and assign blame. By focusing on petty issues, we re-route energy that could be put to better use correcting our problems and becoming prepared for the calamities that are sure to come. Material loss is simply an inconvenience, no matter how long it takes to replace; but the loss of human life is priceless.

One of the more overlooked facets of death is that it is perhaps the ultimate leveler of that playing field we call life. In the end, we are all the same, regardless of personal achievement, material wealth or social status. Thus, it may be said that in death we achieve the democracy that so often eludes us in life.
Within the confines of this column we have attempted to put a face on just a few of the individuals whose lives were interrupted on that fateful day nine years ago. What they share in common with those who are not mentioned here (along with those whose bodies were never recovered) is that their lives had an impact on those of us still among the living. In this era of unhindered hedonism, I can think of no higher calling. Here are their stories:

Todd Isaac’s outgoing personality occasionally rubbed people the wrong way, but he had charisma and persistence that more than made up for it.  It was these qualities that helped him gain entrance into the fast-paced, high-pressure world of Wall Street, no mean feat for a Black man from the Bronx. Along with his professional achievements, he indulged in the trappings that went along with them. When not toiling away at his office at Cantor Fitzgerald, he could be found playing golf, hanging out in the Hamptons, or lounging by the sea in South Beach.

When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.

By any stretch of the imagination, sculptor Michael Richards was on his way. After emigrating from his native Jamaica, he continued his education, first at Queens College, and then at New York University. He soon was acknowledged throughout the city as a figurative sculptor of exceptional talent. Among his many accolades were fellowships in the visual arts in Miami Beach, an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and being selected to participate in the lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s “World Views” residency.

One of the perks of being selected for the residency was the use of studio space on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center facing the Statue of Liberty. He often chose to work late into the night and “crash” in his studio instead of making the long haul back to his apartment in Queens. It was here that Michael Richards spent the night of Sept. 10, 2001, working on a sculpture before preparing to leave for his “day job” at the Bronx Museum, which started at 10 a.m.

Richards received his acclaim for his anatomically correct figures cast in metal, especially bronze, that focused on the Black experience, often using himself as a model. Towards this end, he used such sources as native folklore, historical references, and his own fertile imagination to provide content for his sculptures. These include “Are You Down?” a grouping of three parachutists in aviator’s helmets and flight suits representing the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Aviation and flying were a continuing motif in Richards’ work, including the eerily prophetic “Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian.”

Saint Sebastian, a martyr from early Christianity, is generally depicted being pierced by arrows. In Richards’ version, the figure (again using himself as a model) is pierced by tiny airplanes.

Even in a religion noted for the fervor of its followers, Farah Jeudy stood out for her devotion to her faith. A regular fixture at the several times a week meetings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, she also went out of her way to attend church services whenever family members were participants.

Perhaps unique for a woman of such obvious conviction, the Haitian native was easy to laugh and particularly adept at telling a joke.  Her commitment to her spiritually was tempered by an infectious laugh, a love of travel, and commitment to friends.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.

If most people go through life missing their true calling, then Keithroy Maynard was truly an exception. The second-generation New York City firefighter took his position as civil servant and role model to the extreme. When not on duty, he went out of his way to encourage other African Americans to apply. Through his membership in “The Vulcan Society,” a fraternity of Black fire fighters, he tutored others in preparation for the department’s written and physical tests.

Maynard, who made it his personal quest to increase ethnic diversity within the ranks of the New York fire department, left behind another potential fireman in his son Maynard Jr., age 6.

As a Black man from the South Bronx, Darryl L. McKinney decided early on never to accept society’s limitations. The drive to succeed enabled him to lead the Elmira College Men’s Basketball Team to the NCAA Division III college finals and complete both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and education, respectively. Never forgetting his roots, he directed a youth program in the Bronx, before joining the brokerage firm of Cantor Fitzgerald, at offices in the Twin Towers. On 9-11 he was within weeks of taking the test to become a stockbroker and was engaged to co-worker Angela Rosario, who also perished in the Twin Towers.

I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.

It might be said that Walwyn W. Stuart Jr. viewed his family as his sanctuary away from the chaos and perpetual turmoil that is an intricate part of all large cities, but especially so in the city of New York. As an undercover narcotics detective with the N.Y.P.D., he had certainly seen more than his share of the seamier side of the city, and as a testament to his forthcoming responsibility changed jobs and opted for the (relatively) safer confines of the Port Authority Police, when his wife became pregnant. Once his daughter, Amanda, arrived, he developed an almost irrational preoccupation with her, perhaps having a premonition of a time somewhere in the near future when he wouldn’t be there.

On that fateful day, he redirected a newly arrived trainload of New Jersey passengers home back across the river before evacuating other commuters within the station, then rushed into the north tower (Tower 1), which was already ablaze. His body was never recovered. As a testament to his devotion to duty, a Walwyn Stuart Memorial Scholarship has been established through the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity program, an internship program that mentored Officer Stuart at the beginning of his career.

On Nov. 23, 2003, a scant 26 months after the tragedy of 9-11, a train made up from the same set of eight cars that had been redirected by Officer Stuart, pulled into the newly rebuilt World Trade Center station. Along with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, and a host of other dignitaries riding in the first car were Officer Stuart’s widow, Thelma, and their now 3-year-old daughter, Amanda.

While Anthony Portillo pursued the “American Dream” with a passion, the native Trinidadian remained true to his Caribbean roots. Included among his vast collection of Calypso music were rare recordings from the 1930s. Naturally well-rounded, he was a doting father to his children and went out of his way to expose them to a diverse cultural life, with regular outings to various libraries, museums, and parks. An architect by profession (employed by the construction and engineering giant Washington Group International, he was on the 91st floor when the attacks began), he was an avid photographer, frequently bringing camera and tripod along to document family outings.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.

To say that Rochelle M. Snell had an attraction to the quirky side of life would be an understatement.  Given her Jamaican background, her attraction, for example, to Japanese film defied explanation, as did her fondness for the cultures of Ireland and Scotland.  But her strangest obsession was her fascination with the professional wrestling matches regularly held at Madison Square Garden. Realizing the probable reaction to her patronage of this most melodramatic form of sports entertainment, she made a clandestine pilgrimage to the Garden only after swearing to secrecy all those privy to her covert outing.

An administrative assistant with The Regus Co., Snell was working on the 93rd floor of Tower 2 (the south tower), when the planes hit.

Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die.
(excerpts attributed to an ancient Navajo Burial Song)

Dancing from the terrace
In life, Eugene Clark observed the three D’s: dance, drama and divas. He started early: Roberta Flack was his music teacher in Washington, D.C., during the 1960’s. He could sing like Jennifer Holliday in the musical “Dreamgirls,” he could emote like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” and he danced “like Tina Turner,” said Larry Courtney, Clark’s partner. “And he had legs almost as good.”

For the four years, before the tragedy, the couple lived in a two-story rooftop apartment on 42nd Street, with a sweeping view of the neon canyons and bustle of Times Square. It was not that Clark did not enjoy his work at Aon Corporation, where he was an administrative assistant, but he loved his life away from the office.

He adored “Miss Saigon” and “Les Miserables,” cooked southern-style fried cabbage, and collected Waterford crystal decanters and vases.

And then, there was what they called “the Terrace.” Clark, 47, converted the apartment’s 10-foot-by-24-foot concrete-slab patio into a thriving terrace garden, laying in lattice work and a fountain.

He potted red hibiscus plants, geraniums in hanging baskets, miniature cedar trees, and yellow and burgundy hollyhocks.

From the terrace, guests at their annual New Year’s Eve parties could watch the ball drop in Times Square.

Courtney, who has three children from when he was married, said they came to love Mr. Clark as a family member. His daughter, Heather, 33, joined them on a gay rights march in Washington in 1993, carrying a sign that read, “I’m proud of my gay dad and my new step-queen.”

He did his best to hold her hand.

Helen Cook was 12 when she and her brother, 10, moved to the Bronx from Honduras with their mother. “We used to hold hands when we walked in the street,” the brother, Edson Garcia, remembered. “We came over for a reason: to go to school and try to become somebody.”

She loved school and wanted to become a nurse. But after three years of college in Buffalo, she took a summer job at 1 World Trade Center and met Jermaine Cook, who worked for the stock exchange. Soon his name was in a heart-shaped tattoo on her neck. Their son, Justin, will be 7 on Oct. 23. In August 2001, the couple celebrated their second wedding anniversary in Miami Beach.

Jermaine Cook is distraught. Mr. Garcia said, “He told me the World Trade brought them together, and it also destroyed them.”

After the plane hit, Helen Cook, then 24, tried unsuccessfully to call her husband from the 82nd floor. Instead she reached her brother, crying. By telephone, he did his best to hold her hand.

“She was still laughing.”

Lorisa Taylor actually believed the ruse worked. During visits to her mother, Mrs. Taylor would make a great show of looking through expensive new clothes seemingly bought by her sister.

Speaking loudly so her husband could overhear, Mrs. Taylor would say to her sister: “You don’t want this? Oh thaaaannnnk you!”

Despite her bottomless appetite for shopping, it was tough to stay angry at Lorisa, who had her purchases delivered to her mother’s. She had a charming sunniness, a capacity to be delighted and to delight. That last weekend, the couple celebrated their seventh anniversary in a Brooklyn night club, with Lorisa, 31, outdancing her husband till they left at 4 a.m., she carrying her shoes, her bare feet tired but twinkling.

Her life outside of work–she was an insurance broker at Marsh & McLennan–revolved around her family in Brooklyn, which included their three girls and relatives. “She was my best friend,” said her mother, Geneva Dunbar. “We would talk about things that mommy and daughters shouldn’t even talk about.”

On Sept. 11, Taylor and her mother took the subway together to their jobs. Lorisa Taylor chatted about her anniversary and her girls, laughing loudly. The doors opened. Her mother stepped out.

“I love you!” “I love you!” they called. As the doors closed, “she was still laughing,” her mother said.

Lashawana Johnson’s name was the stuff of family legend. When her mother sat down to print the name on her birth certificate, she inadvertently inserted an “a” between the “w” and the “n.”

Spelled “Lashawana” but pronounced “Lashawna,” the name was a constant source of confusion to people.

Not that Ms. Johnson, then 27, minded. She extended the same consideration to co-workers and strangers that she showed to her three children, whose photographs lined her cubicle on the 83rd floor of 1 World Trade Center, where she worked as a customer service manager for General Telecom. A single mother to 7-year-old Jade Ashley, 5-year-old Jerrard Maurice and 2-year-old Jordan Timothy, Johnson spent most of her free time either with her kids or devising ways to surprise them.

“Many times, she would come in with packages from the World Trade Center mall — shirts, blouses, pants, outfits — all for those kids,” said Willie Borrero, who worked with her.

To support her family, Johnson, who lived in East New York, Brooklyn, awoke at 4 a.m., got her kids dressed and off to the sitter’s by 5:30 a.m., and often arrived at her office in time to see the sun rise. On weekends, she was up early and out the door with her children again. “She made sure that every weekend they were very active,” said then Johnson’s mother, Lois Johnson. “They never stayed home.”

The stories related here represent just a small fraction of the 2,749 death certificates related to the World Trade Center catastrophe. On this, the eve of its anniversary, we are in the midst observing another past calamity (Katrina), not man-made, but just as sure to epitomize the best and worst characteristics of mankind. Both involved excessive destruction to both life and material possessions, and both will surely have a long-lasting effect on the nation’s economy, but even more so they will have a lingering effect on our collective psyche with regard to our perceptions about the world in general.

Not being a native New Yorker, I can’t pretend to understand it from the point of view of those indigenous to the city. The towers were such a dominant fixture on the Manhattan skyline that they were at once a navigational landmark as well as a symbol for the city. The loss of these powerful icons most certainly has cast a permanent shadow, even on those not in the immediate vicinity of the attack.

With the passage of time, comes an increase in clarity. With a small amount of distance, we realize the attack may have more far-reaching consequences than were immediately apparent. There is a growing faction within the scientific community that believes toxic substances and other pollutants released into the air in the wake of the towers’ collapse may have adverse effects on children whose mothers lived or worked in the area while pregnant. Toward verification of this theory, ongoing tests are being done on these women and their offspring by way of interviews with the mothers every six months, along with various tests administered to the youngsters annually.

Needless to say, the verdict is not in yet.

Those who make a living studying such things claim that deliberate violence generates significantly longer-lasting mental health problems than natural disasters. In this case, it is amplified by the fact that it was initiated as part of a political agenda. While both natural and man-made disasters bring about corresponding feelings of fear, frustration, and helplessness, a terrorist act brings into play those erratic emotions of anger and the lust for revenge, which explains why it was so easy for the Bush II administration to sell the public on a full-scale war that we hope will end with a smaller U.S. military presence based on our President’s withdrawal of forces, at least in the foreseeable future.

The aftermath of 9-11 saw the emergence of hysteria and prejudice toward those of Arabic ancestry, with everyone–Blacks and Whites included–at times reduced to what can only be called a modern-day witch hunt. This paranoia has caused the public to again focus on our President’s religious practices and his response to the recent planned construction of a mosque blocks away from ground zero; or according to a Fox news commentator’s his failure to join a church while residing in the White House or his failure to publicly announce he is not Muslim.

Bigotry and intolerance in tandem with that intoxicating mixture of fear and blind rage often produce patterns of irrational thought which, in the throng of mass confusion, may be indecipherable from legitimate fears. We have numerous examples to choose from within the short history of our comparatively young nation. One of the less attractive human traits is the overwhelming need to assign blame to someone else. We can trace our tradition of that back to the Salem witch trials of the 1600s, and continue into the 20th century with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, not to mention the “Red Scare” of the 1950s, with Sen. Joseph McCarthy making wild accusations about communists hidden in high places.

As we are now caught up in the rapture of our current crisis, the pressure-cooker effect spreads out, having an influence even on those not directly in  harm’s way. In marked contrast to the aftermath of 9-11 in which the firemen, police officers, and other rescue personnel were justifiably lauded for their tremendous efforts and teamwork under the most harrowing conditions. In contrast responsible officials have spent an inordinate amount of time pointing fingers about where individual jurisdictions begin and end during Katrina. Syndicated writers have noted that immediately after Hurricane Katrina there were visibly strained relationship’s between Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and President George Bush. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin may have undergone what is known in psychology as “decompensation,” alternately breaking into tears during interviews, then openly worrying about being the subject of a conspiracy, saying, “If the CIA slips me something and next week you don’t see me, you’ll all know what happened.”