The most difficult role of all A new film and next month's fifth anniversary have 9/11 families coping with heartbreaking reminders.

Posted: August 08, 2006

Judi Reiss and her daughter, Jenn, were watching a TV show about quilting this spring when a commercial popped on: an ad for United 93, the movie about the hijacked plane that crashed in Western Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.

Jenn, 16, burst into tears. Reiss ran to the bathroom, sick to her stomach.

That's how it comes at you, said

Reiss, of Lower Makefield. From nowhere. And everywhere. In disputes over rebuilding at ground zero in New York, in a new study on the damaged lungs of rescue workers, in the April discovery of human bone fragments on the roof of a nearby building.

"It doesn't stop," said Reiss, whose 23-year-old son, Joshua, died at the World Trade Center. "Another day, another picture of the building, another reminder this shouldn't have happened. It's very painful."

For the families, Sept. 11 is the attack that never ends.

Tomorrow, Paramount Pictures will release director Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, a Sept. 11 drama starring Nicolas Cage as a Port Authority police officer.

And next month, the nation will mark the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

"There's absolutely no escape," said Mary Fetchet, founding director of VOICES of September 11th, who lost her 24-year-old son, Brad, at the trade center. "There's really no forewarning about when we're going to be confronted about some 9/11 issue connected to the horrific deaths our family members suffered."

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It is a mother's vision, 20 years old and as fresh as yesterday: her four boys, snuggled into a single bed by the window, where they fell asleep while waiting for their parents to return from an evening out.

Now one child is gone.

Joshua worked as an international bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald. He loved the job, but he didn't plan to stay forever. In college, he helped with literacy programs for poor kids and thought he might like to teach.

He was on the 105th floor of the North Tower when the first plane struck.

For the Reisses - Judi, her husband Gary and Joshua's four siblings - that day divides life in ways large and small.

"My daughter, who was 11 years old, she's not living in a normal home," said Reiss, a retired teacher. "She's living with two parents who are very scared. With brothers who watch her like a hawk."

Even ordinary interactions can be awkward. Reiss meets someone, and they inquire, "How many children do you have?"

"How do I answer that?" she asked.

The family held a memorial service for Joshua shortly after Sept. 11. Eight months later, they were notified that some of his remains had been recovered. The family held a funeral.

Later, officials contacted the Reisses again: They had found a wrist bone.

Devastated, the family left explicit instructions that any further notifications were to go to their rabbi or funeral director.

Yet this spring, it was Reiss who picked up the phone to be told, a third time, that remains had been identified.

"It's just too much to cope with," Reiss said.

Lower Makefield, in Bucks County, suffered horrendous losses on Sept. 11, with eight families losing husbands or sons. Reiss was among the original group of residents who sued Osama bin Laden, seeking to freeze al-Qaeda money. She attended many hearings of the 9/11 Commission, but she's never visited Ground Zero. And she won't fly anymore. In fact she has trouble looking at a plane.

That morning, Joshua was on the phone with a Deutsche Bank trader when the jet hit.

"He must have been so frightened," Reiss said. "And I couldn't do anything for him. And I'm his mother. That was my job, to take care of him."

No one knows the toll the constant reminders of Sept. 11 will take on families, said New York psychologist Robin Goodman, who treats people who lost loved ones that day. Partly it's because researchers have no good comparison.

The losses on Sept. 11 differ from those caused by natural disaster or war, she said. The 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City courthouse comes close. But the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pa., killed nearly 20 times more people and provoked a war in Afghanistan.

Many of the bereaved have moved on. Some have remarried, had children. "Others will be going along but still get completely taken aback for a moment here, or an hour here, or a week," Goodman said. "That would be completely expected, probably for the rest of their life."

Even something as simple as a change in the weather, the sky turning the same vivid blue of that day, can take people back to Sept. 11.

Thomas Meehan, of Carteret, N.J., lost his 26-year-old daughter, Colleen Barkow, a facilities manager for Cantor Fitzgerald. Her remains were found in 2002, on what would have been her first wedding anniversary.

Now when Meehan sees or hears something about Sept. 11, "It just resurrects all that emotion, trying to find out whether she survived," he said. "The images of the planes and the buildings and what happened there is just burned into our hearts."

Ellen Fader, director of 9/11 Mental Health Programs at Safe Horizon, a New York victims-assistance agency, said many family members still suffer classic symptoms of trauma: Nightmares. Anger. Memory loss. Depression. Exhaustion. Nausea.

They face an added complication in that Sept. 11 was a shared event. People they've never met may hold strong opinions, and feel free to express them - such as political columnist Ann Coulter, who recently attacked four "self-obsessed" 9/11 widows for "enjoying their husbands' deaths."

"As we approach the fifth anniversary, there's this bigger wave coming toward us that includes the Oliver Stone movie," Fader said. "It's important [for families] to shut off the TV, to not feed into this building momentum."

Fetchet's son worked as an equity trader on the 89th floor of the South Tower. After the first plane hit, Brad phoned his mother to tell her not to worry, he was fine.

On Thursday, Fetchet, of New Canaan, Conn., attended the premiere of World Trade Center. She believes the events of Sept. 11 must be documented. And she wanted to alert families to any potentially disturbing scenes.

She pronounced the film "excellent," especially at portraying rescue workers' courage. It is a movie with a happy ending, families reunited, life going on.

"It's a wonderful story," Fetchet said, "but it brings back, again, the loss you suffered. . . . It's very difficult to see people trying to get out of the building, and recognize that you have a loved one who wasn't evacuated, who didn't make it out."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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