The dreaded call, the awful reality, and newfound calm

Posted: April 14, 2002

Fiona Havlish was on the phone making plans with Ellen Saracini to go to a ball game when another call came in.

The neighbors from Lower Makefield, Bucks County, had turned from strangers to confidantes in the months after Sept. 11. Ellen's husband was pilot of the plane that crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, where Fiona's husband was killed trying to escape the 101st floor.

"Let me get that," Fiona told Ellen that morning on April 4. "I'll call you back."

The other caller was John Hughes, another neighbor familiar to the many Lower Makefield families who lost relatives on Sept. 11. Hughes, who works for the FBI, has made it his business - as much neighbor as federal agent - to help families through this difficult time.

"I need to see you right away," Hughes said to Fiona.

Instantly, Fiona knew why.

Ringing back Ellen, Fiona said through tears:

"They found Don."

It had been nearly seven months since Donald Havlish Jr., a 53-year-old insurance executive, had left a voice message for his wife, telling her about an explosion in the tower across from his office.

Fiona, 45, had let go of the hope of retrieving his body and was ambivalent as well about having just fragments of him returned.

"I had already finished my crying," said Fiona, a nurse and mother of three. "I had come to accept that I was not going to get anything back."

Then came the phone call and a return to the agony of September.

Only this time, Fiona had the support of a circle of neighbors - from other 9/11 widows to Hughes - to blunt the blow.

"It's really one for all, all for one with us," Ellen said.

When the first of their group, Debbi Senko, learned in January that her husband's remains had been found, she got the news with a predawn knock at the door from local police.

The other families bluntly told local Police Chief Ken Coluzzi never to let that happen again. They wanted to be told gently, not roused frighteningly from sleep.

So, when Coluzzi was called by the New York City Medical Examiner's Office with news about Don Havlish, the first person he called was Hughes, who then relayed it. On the way to her house, they picked up the Rev. Doug Hoglund, pastor at Woodside Presbyterian Church, where Fiona and Hughes are members.

Already waiting at Fiona's house were Ellen and Tara Bane, whose husband, Michael, was killed on Sept. 11.

Together the neighbors confronted the news.

*

"This is difficult for me," John Hughes told Fiona. "How much do you want to know?"

"Everything," Fiona said flatly. "Don't be gentle."

Before he arrived, she had jotted questions in a notebook. She asked them one by one, as Ellen took notes.

What did you find?

His left femur.

When?

Three weeks ago.

Where?

In a heap under a ramp used by trucks.

How?

By sifting through debris with rakes, shovels and hands.

Her friends peppered the agent with questions of their own.

What about the personal items of victims?

They're being held at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island.

Can we go and look for things?

Hughes didn't know, but gave them a number to call.

Hughes explained that, in Don's case, the bone that workers recovered had enough muscle tissue to match it to his DNA profile.

The New York City Medical Examiner's Office had DNA samples from the couple's 4-year-old daughter, Mikki, as well as from Don's father, Donald Havlish Sr., 85, a retired Pittsburgh steel executive.

Hughes told Fiona that the bone was found among the remains of many firefighters - news she took as comforting.

"He was trying to come home and they were there trying to help him do that," she said. "He died in good company."

After everyone left, Fiona called her father-in-law at his home in Hilton Head, S.C. She dreaded breaking the news, but his reaction surprised her.

"Oh great!" he said with deep-felt relief.

Fiona informed the FBI office in New York that she didn't want to be notified every time another part of Don was identified. Once was enough.

Instead, when the recovery and identification work was completed, which could be midsummer, the family will collect his remains to be cremated. Fiona said she will have a funeral next fall and store the urn in an ivy-covered columbarium in Hilton Head - next to the ashes of Don's mother.

"I have New York to go to," she said of her decision. "His father will have his son there."

The same day that Fiona got the news about Don, she kept her promise to join Ellen and her daughters on opening night for the Trenton Thunder minor league baseball team.

The Saracini girls - Kirsten, 14, and Brielle, 11 - were throwing the first pitch of the season, and Fiona wanted to share the moment with them.

Ellen wasn't surprised by her friend's decision to go out that night. "She had to have normalcy," Ellen said. "She had to continue on."

The next few days were hard on Fiona. She felt numb and dazed. She found herself putting the milk carton in the cereal cabinet.

"You just start wandering," she said. "That's what I did on Sept. 11."

Fiona said she didn't realize how much the need to know what happened to her husband had weighed on her until something startling happened that weekend: She got her memory back.

Her ability to remember the minutiae of daily life - phone numbers, addresses, Social Security numbers, passwords - was the first thing to go after Sept. 11.

But when she picked up the phone to call a friend in Florida, she dialed without looking up the number.

It was as though the clutter in her mind from one question - Would they ever find Don? - was gone, replaced with a newfound calm.

"I must have been continually wondering," Fiona said.

Her friends, too, could sense that Fiona had turned a corner. "It really was like writing the last chapter," Ellen said. "She doesn't have to wonder anymore."

Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.

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