15 years later, community remembers Sept. 11

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — It has been 15 years since terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, ending the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent people. In that time a lot has changed in the nation. The Pentagon has been fully repaired while the World Trade Center site now hosts a pristine memorial.

Life has gone on, with both sadness and in hope. But, for the victims’ loved ones who spoke during the annual Essex Remembers Ceremony at the Eagle Rock Sept. 11 Memorial, the last 15 years have done little to heal the wounds inflicted that day.

“The pain, the absence and the tears — everything continues,” Helman Correa said of the time that has passed since his 25-year-old son, Danny, did not return from his accounting job at the World Trade Center that day. “People normally say ‘time heals all wounds.’ But in reality what it does is numb the pain.”

But Correa has not been without joy in the years following his son’s death. Speaking with EssexNewsDaily after the event, he said that he is “blessed” to have Danny’s now-18-year-old daughter, Katrina, in his life. Being around his granddaughter not only makes him happy, he said, but gives him the chance to keep Danny’s memory alive by telling Katrina stories about her father.

In addition, Correa takes solace in the way that his “amazing” son lived a good, though short, life.

“He was respectful, he was humble, he cared for people,” Correa said. “Whoever touched him, he changed their life.”

Maria DeRosa also has many good memories of her sister, Antoinette Duger, who worked on the 47th floor of the North Tower. She remembers how her sister would always fill her dining room table with food whenever the family visited, to the point that DeRosa’s husband would joke “Antoinette, you have nothing else to put out?” DeRosa recalled that her sister came along to Friendly’s with her family every Friday night, and that she used to make the best brownies. And she will never forget her sister’s laugh or her kindness to everyone she met.

Above all, DeRosa knows that she will always think of Duger, no matter how many years pass.

“Whenever anything good happens, I remember my sister and I wish I could share it with her,” DeRosa told those gathered for the ceremony. “Whenever anything bad happens, I remember my sister and wish she was here with me. Whenever I look at (Duger’s daughter) Megan’s face, I remember my sister and I think how much she looks like her. There are memories that we cherish. And as long as we live, her spirit will always live in all of us.”

Elisa Charters lost 84 of her coworkers at her Port Authority job in the World Trade Center, including the boss who hired her and a few with whom she worked closely. But she also experienced several miracles on that tragic day. In her speech, Charters said it was a miracle that her husband was able to reach her — despite the fact that cell service in the area was nearly nonfunctional — just as she was considering whether to jump into the Hudson River, one leg already over the railing. And she said it was a miracle that she encountered the three complete strangers who she clung to for survival as Tower One collapsed blocks away. She said that she never got their names, though she will always consider them to be her “angels.”

After 15 years, Charters told EssexNewsDaily that she is still recovering from the trauma of 9/11. In fact, she said that she is grateful to have participated in the ceremony since it feels like she has overcome a “hurdle” in the healing process.

Charters added that her outlook on life has changed since the tragedy as well, explaining that she now makes sure to tell her husband that she loves him every day before he leaves for work because “we just don’t know what’s going to happen that day.” Additionally, she said that she has learned the importance of compassion after seeing the selflessness of the first responders and everyone else who helped her that day. The only way to prevent future acts of terrorism is if everyone starts to focus on their basic human goodness both locally and globally, she said.

“We need to really embrace the idea of empathy and pass along the tradition and the concept to our children,” Charters said. “We have to live our lives in spite of occurrences without judgments even though we’ve experienced tremendous loss.”

Paul Fishman, U.S. attorney for the district of New Jersey, also sent a positive message during the Essex Remembers Ceremony. Though 9/11 proved to be the deadliest terrorist attack in world history, Fishman said the way Americans have responded to it demonstrates that the terrorists did not win. They did not win, he said, when the thousands of first responders and ordinary civilians bravely risked their own lives to save others as the towers collapsed. And he said they have not won in the years since, with the construction of the Freedom Tower, showing how resilient the nation is.

Rather than remember 9/11 as solely a dark moment for the country, Fishman said the day should be commemorated as a “celebration of the American spirit” in the face of such destruction.

“We are not bowed, we are not deterred, we are not stopped by (the terrorists’) actions,” Fishman said during his speech. “We are not terrorized. It is exactly the opposite. The anniversary of that day and the way the American people have behaved and reacted to its challenge continues to inspire our share pursuit of peace, security and justice.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez also stressed in his speech how “exceptional” the American people have proved themselves to be in the 15 years following 9/11. With every first responder who risked life and death, with every civilian who welcomed strangers into their homes and with every person who volunteered to give blood in the aftermath, Menendez said the American spirit rose from the ashes.

Menendez himself played a part in much post-9/11 legislation, including: helping to turn the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations into law; sitting on the committee that created the Department of Homeland Security; and sponsoring the first Zadroga Act, which expanded benefits to Ground Zero workers who died from cancer or respiratory problems likely caused by toxic exposure during recovery efforts.

In an interview with EssexNewsDaily after the event, the senator vowed to continue doing anything in his power to make the United States safer following that nation’s worst foreign attack since Pearl Harbor. He also said he was honored to once again be part of a ceremony paying tribute to those who died that day.

“It’s a beautiful commemoration,” Menendez said. “It was so powerful to hear from the families and the survivor. And it’s a reflection of our solemn commitment to remember.”

That commemoration will always continue, according to Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. DiVincenzo, who spearheaded the effort to construct a memorial at the Eagle Rock Reservation in 2002. He said it is essential that future generations never forget the horrors of that tragic day and to continue to understand the impact it had on everyone.

“Our world, on that particular day, changed forever,” DiVincenzo told those gathered at the memorial. “The only thing that’s important going forward is to make sure we stay together and stay united and are able to support each other.”

Photos by Sean Quinn