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Middletown NJ Remembers Sept. 11 - 2002-08-29

Memories of September 11, when the World Trade Center Towers were destroyed, have focused heavily on New York City and its citizens. But many victims of September 11 lived outside the city, in the scores of suburban communities that ring the metropolis. In Middletown New Jersey, a sprawling middle-class town lost three dozen residents in the attacks.

The sound of the commuter train from Manhattan pulling into Middletown Station fills the air, just as it does almost two dozen times every weekday. The passengers step onto the platform and head to their cars in the parking lot for the short ride home. Nothing could be more routine - which is just how many of Middletown's 66,000 residents like their life.

For them, this sprawling leafy township is comfortable, family-friendly, and safe in ways that New York City, where most of them work, could never be. That sense of security was broken on September 11, says Patrick W. Parkinson, Middletown New Jersey's current mayor.

"Middletown train station is kind of the hub of our town for transportation. Over 2000 people a day take the train, which is like, one out of every ten households send somebody to the train station, and it's right near our town hall. And it was a very empty feeling that night when you saw a couple of hundred cars still there and made people like myself wonder 'how many people did we really lose in the tragedy?'" Mr. Parkinson said.

In all, 36 Middletown residents lost their lives in the attacks on New York. Middletown Police Chief John F. Pollinger clearly saw the Twin Towers burning and smelled the concrete, electrical wire, and human beings, as they burned. At a local family-run Italian restaurant, he likened his town to a giant puzzle.

"Everybody that has moved here has brought something to the town, when you have so many pieces of the puzzle ripped out suddenly, no matter who moves back into the town or moves in to replace them, the puzzle is never going to be the same," Mr. Pollinger said. "I carry each and every one of those people every day. And that's the way we honor their memories. That's where the turmoil comes in as a police officer. Because you're helpless at that point to help the person. And that's what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to make things better and sometimes you just can't."

"Yeah. I find it a little harder to laugh sometimes. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think about it, still," said Detective Seargent Joe Capriotti. It's his task to notify relatives when the remains of a loved one are discovered. Just yesterday, he told a mother that a piece of her son had been found."

"The families get... I think they have mixed emotions. Yes, they want to be able to put this to rest and they want to have some closure and be able to bury their loved ones," he said. "But, by the same token, they are only finding pieces and parts for their loved ones. They don't have a body to bury. Sometimes it's a hand. Sometimes it's a shinbone. I don't think they want to remember their people like that. They want to remember the good times and not the violence with which they died."

Our waitress, Toni Marletta, has been listening. Her husband worked across the street from the World Trade Center, but happened to stay home in Middletown on the morning of September 11. Many of Ms. Marletta's regular customers were not so lucky. A year later, she says, many of their spouses are not coping well especially as the anniversary of their tragedy approaches.

"They talk to us. They cry to us," she said. "They'll come in here they'll have like a favorite thing they used to order for a dessert or something, Like some dishes or specials we're running will set them off. I have one woman who comes in and always orders the wine that her husband used to get. She always says to me 'what wine did Peter get? That's the wine I want!'"

Phillips: "What do you think is going to happen with the future?"

Marletta: "I have no clue."

At a pre-school football practice attended by hundreds of Middletown children and their parents, the horrors of September 11 seem far away. But even those who did not lose a family member or a friend have been affected by the presence of insecurity and mourning around them.

Reconnecting with others has been one way to get through the crisis.

For Tracy Rogers and Janet Dluhi, two founders of a group called Middletown Families Aiding Victims of Terror, that connection has come through service.

Rogers: "Two of my girlfriends lost their husbands and that's why I got involved... and it wasn't just about writing a check. It was personal. And you made a difference in their lives. So I do think that everyone does want to make a difference."

Dluhi: "These people won't have their children or their husbands coming home. And it breaks my heart to see what these young women are doing with their children. It breaks my heart that they have to go through this alone. So we decided to give them immediate assistance, support anything they needed."

Children have their own fears to deal with. Twelve-year-old Daniel Soulnier, who is here to watch his brother play, has a close friend down the road whose father died at the World Trade Center.

Soulnier: "I had a bad dream that Bin Laden sent people to blow up my school when I was inside it. I now worried about that for days after that. Because I was rally afraid."

Phillips: "Are you afraid now?

Soulnier: I think I'm a little more comfortable, but you do get that feeling every once in a while that something bad is going to happen. When your country has been affected liked this, everyone goes through a change."

Both Tracy Rogers and Janet Dluhi agree that while Middletown may heal, life here changed forever on September 11, 2001.

"Everybody now views their life a little bit differently. Now my husband is getting home for the football game, and trying to be a little more family involved. I think a lot of men are reviewing what is important to them. They prioritize, they are not saying 'the job is the end-all.' You know what? Your family is the end-all. That's what's important," Tracey Rogers said.

"Yeah," Janet Dluhi added, "you never know when it's gonna end, so you gotta just enjoy what you've got when you have it."

A memorial flower garden is being planned to honor the Middletown men and women who died on September 11. It will include benches dedicated to the healing and reflection of those who remember them.