News / USA

September 11th Loss Struck One Community Especially Hard

Death changes life for those who survive. And everyone has survived their September 11 losses differently.

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For many, their safe and comfortable lifestyle here represents a fulfillment of their dreams. But that sense of security was shattered on 9/11, when 137 Middletown residents died in the terror attacks.  In this feature, we hear from some of those left behind that day.

Gwendolyn Briley-Strand, Elisabeth Torres and Mel Esdaile

The Falling Man

“His death took away the fear of death for me,” said Gwendolyn Briley-Strand. Her brother is believed to be the the man photographed falling head first out of the north tower after a hijacked plane smashed into the World Trade Center.  But she's unsure.

“The Falling Man” in Richard Drew’s famous Associated Press photograph has never been positively identified. Some say it was Jonathan Briley because of his clothes, shoes and height.

Briley-Strand still has her doubts, but says maybe it’s not necessary to know. “It didn’t matter who they were,” she says. For those who chose not to live through that day, “The decision they made was between them and their God.”

The Briley family is conflicted over the identity of “The Falling Man.” Their father, Alexander Briley, Jr., is the pastor of a Baptist church. Because of their beliefs, the family is divided as to whether to accept that this could be Jonathan.

Briley-Strand says her father called their brothers and sisters together in their family living room that day to pray for Jonathan.  “He demanded God give him his miracle, which he knew God could do. He asked that God return his son.” The next day, Briley-Strand says, officials called. They had found Jonathan’s body.

Thousands more died that day.

Muslim Convert

Elisabeth Torres lost eight relatives that day. Then she converted to Islam, married an Egyptian and changed her name to Safia el-Kasaby. Sitting with her youngest daughter and two cats in her quiet Florida home, lit only by candles, el-Kasaby explains that the terrorists, not Islam, were behind the attacks.

“The religion doesn’t tell you go destroy anything. These people who did this were manipulated, were brain-washed,” she says.

But el-Kasaby’s family did not support her conversion. They didn’t understand why she would embrace the religion they blamed for the September 11 attacks, or why she would marry outside her culture, to an Egyptian man 22 years her junior.

Her oldest daughter, Sylvia would not talk to her after her own husband, a navy pilot, died in training during America’s war on terror.

El-Kasaby is a dedicated student of Islam. It is not unusual for her to correct Muslims when they confuse cultural practices with religious teachings, “because I know,” she says. “If a person, a Muslim, an Arab tells you, this is how we do things, I can say to them, ‘No, that’s your culture, that’s not Islam.’ I just didn’t see it, I read it, I study it.”

If You Could Walk in My Shoes

For one survivor, the entire horror of 9/11 is held in a dusty pair of brown leather shoes. For Mel Esdaile they are a symbol of risk and survival.

Esdaile was working at a securities firm on the 22nd floor of the world trade center when he heard a loud boom. Then the floor beneath him started moving. “We thought it was an earthquake.”

It was in those brown shoes that he ran down 22 flights of stairs to safety. Once on the ground, he could hear the flames crackling above him. “It just was unbelievable that this tower was on fire,” he recalls.

He kept on walking another 40 city blocks towards home - past crying men and women with blank faces, still in shock at what had happened. Ten years later, he still scans the New York City skyline. “I always look back, looking for the tower. I know it’s not there, but in my mind, it’s almost - it’s like the moon is gone.”

Esdaile keeps his shoes on a bookshelf at work, close to his desk. As the president of an investment management firm, he uses the shoes when he meets with clients to illustrate risk - in life and in financial investments. “They sort of bring it to life that anything can happen. That life is not, there’s no certainty, and our job is to help you to prepare,” he says.

For him, the shoes are a reminder to enjoy life and to be ready for anything that might happen.


Carolyn Presutti

Carolyn Presutti is an award-winning television reporter who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters.  She has won an Emmy, many Associated Press awards, and a Clarion for her coverage of Haiti,  national politics, the southern economy, and the 9/11 bombing anniversary.  In 2013, Carolyn aired exclusive stories on the Syrian medical crisis and the Asiana plane crash, and was VOA’s chief reporter from the Boston Marathon bombing.

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