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A decade later, returning to the scene of something unfathomable

A columnist goes back to Lower Manhattan, where in 2001 he got a close-up look at the destruction of 9/11. He's reminded anew that we all have a stake in what happened that day and in the days that followed.

September 11, 2011|Steve Lopez

One place I wanted to revisit was Union Square, where 10 years ago I had met Dick McCloskey of South Bend, Ind. He was with his family then, looking for his daughter, Katie, a recent college graduate and New York transplant who was thrilled that she could see the Statue of Liberty from her office on the 97th floor of the north tower. In Union Square, Dick McCloskey carried a flier with his daughter's image, hoping to find someone who had spotted her alive. He had given a DNA sample earlier, in the event they found his daughter's remains.

With tears welling, he hugged me and said, "Say good things."

I spoke to McCloskey again this past May, when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. The Al Qaeda chief had gloated about the annihilation of Katie McCloskey and all the others, but McCloskey told me Bin Laden's death wasn't something he cared to dwell on. "Our focus has been much more on trying to make something positive come out of 9/11," he said, telling me that a ninth student at his daughter's former high school had just been given a college scholarship in Katie's name.

"I'm glad they've rid the world of this monster," he said of Bin Laden, "but we're never going to win a war on terror through violence." And to those who were inclined to celebrate, he said, "I'd rather see them do that by doing something good for someone today."

That kind of generosity is an inspiration, and surprisingly common among the survivors I've talked with.

From my hotel, I called the relative of a friend. Mike Sweeney answered the phone at his home in suburban Boston and told me his story.

Early on the morning of Sept. 11, he got a call from his wife, Amy. She was feeling low about being at work and missing out on a chance to see their daughter, a kindergartner, off to school. Sweeney, a cop, talked her through it. There'd be plenty of chances to take Anna, who was almost 6, and Jack, 4, to school. Amy Sweeney, a flight attendant, took off from Logan International Airport shortly after that conversation on American Airlines Flight 11, headed for Los Angeles.

On his way to work later that morning, Sweeney got a call from an American employee in Dallas, asking if he'd heard the news about a plane going into a tower.

He later learned that his wife had called flight management services in Dallas to report the hijacking and the seat numbers of the hijackers. "I see water and buildings," she said as Flight 11 went into rapid descent, according to an FBI document. "Oh my God! Oh my God!"

"The first thing I had to do was pick up the kids," said Mike Sweeney. "I said, 'Guys, today's a real tough day. Mommy was in a plane crash and died.' Anna goes, 'What?'"

Mike Sweeney said Anna wanted to know if other people were hurt. Yes, he told her. They died, too.

The kids had lots of questions: Why would someone fly a plane into a building? Where was their mother now? If she was in heaven, why didn't she just come home?

Mike Sweeney didn't have answers or explanations that made sense to him or his children. But he has tried to help them understand that, while there are good and bad people in the world, the good outnumber the bad.

He felt some sense of justice in the U.S. killing of Bin Laden but has mixed feelings about the reasons and effects of two wars. And though he and his children try not to dwell on the past, he wishes schools devoted more attention to Sept. 11. "People don't know what to do as far as putting it into its place in history," he said.

Some of Madeline Amy Sweeney's remains were found in August of 2002.

"We had them flown up here for a burial," said Sweeney, who retired from the police force in order to raise his kids. "Unfortunately, we found out two and a half years later that they had found some more. I wasn't going to dig up her grave, but it was a significant portion of her body, so we had to go through it all over again."


Roberta "Robbie" Morell of suburban New York is another friend of a friend. Her husband, George, was at work in the north tower, perhaps not far from the spot where Amy Sweeney's plane hit. George worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and was one of 658 employees the company lost that day. He left behind Robbie and their four children.

There's grief and depression, said Robbie. Complicated, unresolved grief that just accumulates. There's anger, irritability, uneasiness, depending on the day. She "disassociates" from news of Bin Laden or the wars, she said, because it's hard for her to deal with retaliation or revenge, which only open the wounds all over again.

And it's not just her own issues she's dealing with. Her four kids, ranging in age from 16 to 24, are also working out the loss in their own ways, on their own schedules. And then there are the anniversaries to deal with, the public, annual revisiting of the historic event that tore up their family.

"The void, you just adjust to it," she said, but the adjusting is forever. "One of my best friends lost her husband, too, so the support group is helpful."

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