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Middletown, NJ's Sept. 11 Survivors Begin Healing Process - 2003-09-11


In the two years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the horror of that event has faded for many Americans. But in places like Middletown, New Jersey, a New York City suburb that lost 37 people on 9-11, many are still coping with loss and trying to make sense of their new lives. When VOA's Adam Phillips visited Middletown last year, just before the first anniversary of the attacks, he saw a town united in shock, grief and community spirit. He returned recently to find out how that community's healing has progressed.

On a rainy day next to the commuter train station, Mike Schiafone one of scores of Middletown Memorial volunteers, puts a finishing touch on a memorial to the 37 Middletown residents who left for work on September 11, 2001 but never returned.

"We're just here to help out. We're donating our time and effort to build a memorial for the men and women that gave their lives for us during 9-11," he said.

The memorial is simple, dignified and to the point. Along a graceful winding pathway are 37 granite markers, each bearing a photograph of the deceased and a personal remembrance.

Mr. Schiafone says working on this project over the past year has been good for him.

"Last year I was probably more deeply in the shock, not knowing what I could do. And as time goes on, the soul heals and this project is like one way to help out. Anything we can do to help, we try," he said. "And at other times, it feels like there is nothing I can really do to help, but everybody has their job."

Helping others cope with grief is a fulltime job for Maureen Fitzsimmons, a bereavement counselor at Catholic Charities, a leading Middletown social service agency. She says that planning and building a memorial has been a boon to many in the town in the effort to move on.

"It's a place where people can go and experience that serenity and be reminded, yes, of the tragedy, but also [that] there is hope," she explained. "That is one of the chief tasks of grieving. We need to be able to locate the person who has left us and think of him or her in another place and yet honor and respect the lives that they lived and… not [only] the impact of the trauma or the death. And that can begin to happen around the second year."

There were many inspiring lives among those who died on 9/11. Middletown Police Chief John F. Pollinger is especially moved by the heroism of Kenneth Tietjen, a young Port Authority police officer and Middletown native who died trying to save others at the World Trade Center.

"As horrible and as tragic as it was, that was Kenny's finest hour. Because he was there doing what all cops and firefighters want to do to be there in someone's greatest need and be able to help. It is the most honorable thing a human being can do is to head towards danger when everyone else is fleeing. And he gave his life doing that," he explained.

A quiet effort to remember life in the face of overwhelming loss can also be heroic. Barbara Minervino's husband Louis died a gruesome death at the World Trade Center.

"He was everything to me. He was my sunshine. He was my one true love," she said.

Barbara Minervino recalls the first year after Louis death as a sort of sea of shock for herself and her two grown daughters. But sometime between the first 9/11 anniversary and now, Ms. Minervino began "to make baby steps toward healing."

"… And this may not seem so great [but] there was $15 on his nightstand that he took out of his pocket the night before. He had gone to a Yankees game. And the $15 was there until a few weeks ago. And I finally decided that he is not going to use it. I really don't want to touch it, so I put it in church in the poor basket," she said. "And the fact that I also have gone to his closet which was a big thing! He's not going to use those things. He's not going to need those things…. So that's what I'm doing with them - giving them away to someone who can use them and appreciate them. It's going to take a long time…"

During normal times, birthdays, holidays and other special occasions are moments for family members to be together and rejoice. When a loved one dies unexpectedly, those days can become filled with sorrow. But here too, Ms. Minervino reports progress.

"Thanksgiving the first year, we stayed in our pajamas and watched inane videos. Nothing heavy. Thanksgiving 2002, we got dressed, and I made a turkey. And we were by ourselves," she said. " And Thanksgiving this year, I am going to invite people to join us. So I think that's part of our healing. I always had big family gatherings in the holidays and I've pushed them aside. I didn't want to face them. It's time to face them. It is real."

For Barbara Minervino's two daughters, recovery has been more elusive. Marisa, now 24, has found some relief through therapy and medication. But Laina, the older daughter, suffers from nightmares. She cannot pass an airport without horrific visions of the hijacked airplanes that killed her father. Violence on television can make her faint.

"Part of it was she rode in on the train with her father the morning of the 11th. She had fallen asleep on his shoulder and he had to get off at the World Trade Center and she went on to 33rd Street where she worked and her father woke her up and said 'see you later' and she said 'But he lied. He won't see me later,'" she said.

Some groups of mourners have clearly fared better than others. Still, Ms. Fitzimmons, says that in bringing this once insular middle class town together, the tragedy also brought a gift.

"I think people are kinder. I think people are more compassionate. I remember very clearly on September 11, 2001 Rabbi Levin said to people: this is the day for which we have been preparing. Go home, knock on your neighbor's door and say 'I care about you. What can I do for you?' And that was very powerful," she recalled. "And people recognized they needed to be neighbors. And now, they continue to be those neighbors. They continue to be caring."

For some, the wound of 9/11 has brought a gift that few others can observe. One man said the calamity simply made him love his life more. He was driven before, he said, and now he stops to look at the flowers, the animals, and simply, "accept the wonder and amazement and beauty of it all."

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