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A YEAR AFTER

Life Amid the Anguish of Loss

Reflections: For some area residents, the death of a brother, wife, son or co-workers at the hands of terrorists has turned them into victims of history.

September 08, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Colleen Rastovich shuddered the other day when she heard a plane flying low over her toy-strewn east Ventura backyard. But the moment, like a million others since Sept. 11, passed.

Rastovich was a continent away from the devastation of that day. But for her and a number of other people who live and work in Ventura County, it was as close as an empty chair at the dining room table, a dear friend never seen again, a riotous laugh never heard.

For them, the shock and aftershocks of Sept. 11 dealt a terrible, intimate loss.

Not merely anguished witnesses to history, they were victims of it. Here are a few of their stories.

Look around her house and you will see why Colleen Rastovich never gave evil much credit. The place is bursting with life. Six-year-old twin sisters Tora and Lexi, miracle babies whose survival was in doubt, gleefully wrestle in the living room. Eighteen-month-old Max tags after brother Sam, soon to be 7. Their mom volunteers in the classroom and gives piano lessons. She paints, sculpts and writes songs. All in all, she seems like a woman who would breeze through adversity with a diaper in one hand and a coffee mug in the other.

But last Sept. 11 she was cast into a long, dark night of the soul. Her brother, Joe Heller--the family organizer, prodder and tell-it-like-he-sees-it kind of guy--was last heard from in a conference room on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center's north tower.

He had called his wife in Ridgefield, Conn., to tell her he was OK. Later, others who received calls from that room reported they were told that the blaze just beyond the threshold had melted the doorknobs.

"I never believed in evil," Rastovich said as she pondered the year's changes at her backyard picnic table last week. "I just thought of it as an absence of good."

But since Sept. 11 she has opened her eyes to the extremes of human behavior, from the depravity of the hijackers to the nobility of the rescue workers.

At 41, she now believes in evil. Raised a Catholic but never devout, she has been gripped by urgent, spiritual questions that never before seemed to matter.

"All of a sudden, it's very important for me to know: Is there an afterlife?" she said. "I want so badly to believe I'll see Joe again."

Three years older, she had been close to her brother since they were kids in Cleveland.

He poured himself into everything he did, Rastovich said. When he was in second grade, he was barred from the school bus after a tiff with the driver. Somehow, he managed to run several miles home every day after school, standing outside with a broad smile to greet the bus as it pulled onto his block.

"He was very, very stubborn," Rastovich said.

A trader for a company called Carr Futures, Heller had worked in the World Trade Center for 15 years. Most of the time he worked on the second or third floor. But an unusual meeting Sept. 11 took him up to the 92nd--a level on which there were no known survivors.

Six weeks after the center's destruction, Heller's body was found. Three memorial services had been held without it, and Rastovich was surprised at how disturbed she was by the body's absence. But its discovery also wound up tormenting her.

"Incredibly, he was nearly intact," she said. "And how could that be? Our latest theory is that maybe he was almost out of there--and if he was that close, it's even harder to accept. It would really help if I could get used to a scenario and just live with it."

On Wednesday, Sept. 11, she will drop by an observance at Ventura's City Hall and attend a talk in Thousand Oaks by New Age thinker Marianne Williamson. Otherwise, she will follow the routine of a stay-at-home mom who has glimpsed a bit of hell.

"I've become a terrible housekeeper," she joked. "But I'm on the floor a lot more with the kids. I'm definitely paying a lot more attention to the here and now."

Earl Dorsey and his 5-year-old son, Jaryd, have their weekends planned out this fall.

They will travel all over the West to see Jaryd's 19-year-old sister, Imani, play soccer for the University of Portland.

That is just what they did two seasons ago--only then they were accompanied by an exuberant woman with a wonderful laugh, a woman whose loss they have been coping with since Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

When Dora Menchaca died, Dorsey, an attorney, lost his wife, the children lost their mother, and a cozy world of domestic routine suddenly was flung upside-down. But bit by bit over the past year, the rhythms of home have been restored.

"Even after Dora died, we went to see Imani's games," said Dorsey, who was married 18 years to the woman he met as a graduate student at UCLA. "That was our plan for the 2001 season and that's our plan this year too."

Stricken by chaos, Dorsey and his kids have hewed to routine.

A research scientist at Amgen in Thousand Oaks, Dora Menchaca walked the 26 miles of the Los Angeles Marathon in 2000 and 2001. In tribute to her, Dorsey and Jaryd walked about 1 1/2 miles of it in March, hand in hand.

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