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AFTER THE ATTACK | THE STORIES

Calls Out of the Chaos

Victims: They phoned from the hijacked planes, from the crumbling towers. Most often, they gave their love.

September 17, 2001|JOCELYN Y. STEWART and TERENCE MONMANEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Brian Sweeney called his wife at 8:58 Tuesday morning. She wasn't there. "Hey, Jules," he said to the answering machine. "It's Brian."

He was aboard United Airlines Flight 175, Boston to Los Angeles.

"I'm on a plane that's been hijacked. It doesn't look good."

Minutes later, the jet slammed into the World Trade Center's south tower.

"Just remember that I love you, and I want you to live your life and have fun, and the same to my family and friends," the message went on.

A number of people on the hijacked aircraft made phone calls to family or friends. So did people in the World Trade Center after jets hit the skyscrapers. Some callers were matter-of-fact. Most, it seems, expressed their love.

The calls are among the most wrenching novelties of the attacks, an unusual round of communications from the heart of deadly chaos as it unfolded.

News of the calls has enthralled Americans groping to reach out to the victims and their families. The callers' desperate words have also served as a jolting reminder of the deep feelings that people caught up in their workaday lives often neglect to express.

That's what strikes Kamau Daaood, a Los Angeles poet, about the calls. The lesson, he said, is "we don't have to wait until death is in our face to realize there are things we can do while we're alive that are so important, like loving each other."

Oddly, perhaps, the calls, some of them made while flames licked at an office door, must have brought comfort to both the caller and recipient, said Dr. Leslie Blackhall, a physician at the University of Virginia specializing in end-of-life issues.

In her experience, she said, people who die suddenly with no final exchange often leave behind loved ones racked by guilt that their last encounter was trivial or testy. "I think the people who called their families did them a big favor," she said.

For Julie Sweeney of Barnstable, Mass., the message from her husband is not morbid, but a source of solace. Her husband was a former Navy lieutenant who served as a radar intercepting officer aboard aircraft that patrolled the no-fly zone over Iraq during the Gulf War, and his cool showed through, she said.

"It's comforting to know that he was that calm in those last minutes and thinking of others."

Brent Woodall was a 31-year-old trader on the 89th floor of World Trade Center's south tower. When the north tower was struck, he called his father, John, to say that he was OK, that he was in the other building.

"He had no concern in his voice whatsoever," John Woodall said. "We talked about how inconceivable it was that anything would hit the thing . . . for a few minutes."

He got into the shower and his wife Mary went to walk the dog. Brent Woodall called again--and left a message.

"He said the building had been hit and they were trying to get the hell out," his father recalled.

Woodall's death has not been confirmed, but his father has little hope of his son's survival. He said he would cherish the last call.

"I need to know that up until that moment his life was going along normally. He liked what he was doing. That's a comfort that you had a conversation with him right up until the end."

David St. John, a poet and literature professor at USC, said he marvels at the heartbreaking beauty of the calls that the soon-to-be victims made. "These calls are little notes, like Post-it notes from the living, about the importance of the transition to the other side," he said.

"The pressure of the circumstances allows the resonance and the power of the human connection to be held onto by the person left behind," he said. They also served to free the people at home "of the trauma of worrying and not knowing," he said.

Dianne DeFontes was in one of the skyscrapers. She phoned two people on her way out, then finally reached her best friend, Yolanda Emeric.

"I felt that I had to talk to someone who knew me and who cared about me, and I had to let someone know that I loved them."

Her friend said she "loved me, and then I just hung up the phone and got out of there."

Emeric recalled, "The only thing I could say is, 'Honey, it's going to be OK.' I said, 'It's going to be OK.' "

She turned on the TV and saw the attack footage.

"The only thing that I could do was scream and I prayed to God that those people could get out," Emeric said.

Her friend got out.

"I knew I had to reach out to someone in case I didn't make it," DeFontes said.

*

Times staff writer Geoffrey Mohan contributed to this story.

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