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But the Chef Is Still Here, Starting Over, Not Able to Forget

September 11, 2002|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — People keep expecting Michael Lomonaco to have been totally transformed by his experience, by his survival, much like the Jimmy Stewart character in "It's a Wonderful Life," who is saved by Clarence the angel.

Lomonaco wasn't saved by a guardian angel, but by luck: A year ago this morning, he finally had enough of an annoying scratch on his reading glasses and decided to stop at the Lenscrafters store in the shopping area below the World Trade Center. He was still there at 8:46 a.m., getting fitted for a new pair, then planning to head up to the 106th floor of the north tower, where he had a prized corner office as executive chef of Windows on the World. Had the hijacked jetliner struck five minutes later, he figures, he would have been in the elevator, traveling up to certain death.

How many times has he told that tale in the last year?

"I haven't wanted to be at the center of things," he says, "but with my story of my lucky little right turn ... "

He's had to tell it a lot, in other words.

Last week, the 47-year-old Lomonaco finally took his first vacation since that day, going with his wife, Diane, to Belgium and Amsterdam, taking in the art museums and leaving behind his cell phone. And his story. "No one knew who we were and we didn't tell anyone," he says.

But he was back in town Monday, and that night Connie Chung showed an interview with him on her CNN show. In it, she asked whether his narrow escape had made him a new person, immune to the trivial hassles of life.

Though the Brooklyn-born Lomonaco was an actor before he became a chef, he did not act out the answer that the audience might have wanted to hear--that like Stewart's George Bailey, he now could relish even the once annoying moments, like getting stuck in the rain in a cab.

What he said was, "I wish I could be that changed."

"No, I'm not changed in the sense that the small annoyances of life no longer bother me," Lomonaco elaborated Tuesday. "I'm still going to get impatient waiting for the subway."

But he is changed, of course, by being a survivor, one of those who were below where the plane struck and thus able to escape before the building disintegrated. Those above, or in the elevators, were not so fortunate.

Windows, which prided itself on being the highest-grossing restaurant in the country, taking in $37.5 million its last year, had 450 employees. Of those, 72 were on site that morning, though the toll there was higher.

"I can tell you the math," he says. "It's 72 plus one security guard plus six carpenters who were building a wine room. So that's 79."

In the first days and weeks, a lot of his time was taken up by meetings with families of the victims, and with memorial services. "Dozens." He also helped organize the Oct. 1 restaurant industry service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine that drew 2,000 people--not only celebrity chefs like himself, but waiters and dishwashers as well. Both New York senators spoke, as did Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Lomonaco read a poem.

He and the restaurant's president, David Emil, helped create the Windows of Hope charity to raise funds for the families of their dead colleagues and other food service workers. The organization has raised $19 million and is assisting 125 families, including more than 150 children.

Solace at the Stove

It was not until Thanksgiving, Lomonaco says, that he began to find some normality in his life--by cooking. He'd do it at first just for himself and his wife. By Christmas, all he wanted to do was bake.

Last June, he helped Emil open a new Latin-themed restaurant, Noche, at the north end of Times Square. Though about 60 of the 100 employees used to work at Windows, several Windows survivors picketed the opening, complaining that wasn't enough. Labor disputes were another of those mundane hassles that did not go away.

Lomonaco is the consulting chef for the five-story restaurant, which was going to be a David Copperfield "Magic Underground" until the theme-restaurant craze bottomed out. The Windows people had agreed to take over the location before Sept. 11, and give it a Latin theme inspired by the successful dance and music nights at Windows' bar.

But Noche will be closed today, so employees can attend the new round of memorials.

Lomonaco will be at ground zero. He's one of those invited to read names of the dead. Each speaker has been given 10 names. The person reading with him drew the name of a Windows victim, Howard Kane, the controller who had an office next to Lomonaco's. They used to have coffee every morning and shoot the breeze, talking about Kane's son, life--and a little business. Kane's window faced north, the direction from which the plane came.

"Howard saw this happen," Lomonaco says.

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