September 11 Victims' Relatives One Year Later



September 11 Victims' Relatives One Year Later

HOW DO YOU explain again to a toddler that Daddy died when a plane crashed into his work? And how does the mother keep her sanity after a year of explanations that don't satisfy her children or, even, herself? Last week, Abigail Carter flew home to New Jersey with her two young kids after visiting her sister in British Columbia. Once the plane took off, her three-year-old son, Carter, turned to her and asked, "Where's Daddy?"

Daddy was Arron Dack, a 39-year-old, Toronto-raised financial executive. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he called Abigail from the World Trade Center where he worked to say he thought a bomb had gone off in the building. She never heard from him again. Today, his wife is a single parent with a seven-year-old daughter Olivia, who is "working hard to be happy," and a confused son. "I do think Carter was connecting that he was on a plane and that planes hit the buildings," says Abigail. "Even someone so little is dealing with weird things."

For Abigail, Olivia, Carter and the other families of the 24 Canadians who died on Sept. 11, the past 12 months involved many "weird things." There's the unbearable grief and anger of losing someone so suddenly, so senselessly. There is the attempt to rebuild lives, day by day, month by month. But these families also face unique challenges - reliving the moment of death over and over again on television, approving designs and inscriptions for memorials, talking to the media, sharing raw emotions with strangers who, by chance, experienced the same tragedy.

Inevitably, over the past year, relationships have changed. Widows meet for dinner. A deceased son's friends are now the parents' support network. But for each person the grieving process is vastly different. Christina Ludvigsen, who lost her 32-year-old bond broker son Mark, attends every Sept. 11 memorial she can. Her husband Karl has never been to Ground Zero. "I can't relive all the stuff," he says. "It doesn't do anything for me. The door is closed, and it's not going to be opened again."

Even in this dark and difficult year, there have been brief moments of joy. Three of the widows have given birth since their husbands died. But they too faced unexpected hurdles. When Cindy Barkway bore her second son, choosing to name him after his father David seemed natural yet also a little macabre. For Irinie Elmarry, who lost her 30-year-old husband Albert, naming her first child Lodie Marie was easy. "It was the only name we discussed together," Irinie says. "I don't know how I would have gotten through this time without her. She is a blessing, a precious gift and my reason to have hope." For Karl Ludvigsen, canine therapy has been the biggest help. Before he died, Mark gave his father Chlöe, a golden retriever. "A bit of Mark is in her, for sure," says Karl. "We have that connection still."

Holding onto happier memories, not allowing Sept. 11 to mar the images of their loved one, is just one of the wrenching tasks facing these families. Some prefer to remember Sept. 11 privately, shunning all media and public events, while others have moved homes. But all would likely agree with Irinie's sentiment: "He's always going to be in our hearts and in my heart." Albert's widow pauses, then adds, "His memory is going to last forever."

SORROW AND JOY

IT WAS a joyous event at a time of unspeakable sorrow. On Jan. 3, less than four months after 34-year-old Toronto investment manager David Barkway died in the attack on the World Trade Center, his widow Cindy gave birth to their second child. The arrival of the baby boy - named David after his father - sent his mother's spirits soaring. "I was worried the whole time about how the stress would have affected him," says Barkway, 32, who was five months pregnant when she accompanied her husband on his ill-fated business trip to New York. "But he was so healthy. I was pretty excited and thrilled that night." But when she brought the baby home, the reality of Sept. 11, of her lost love and her two boys' lost father sank in. "My hardest day was the day I got out of the hospital," she says. "When I got home I crashed - I cried and cried."

In the serenity of the spacious home she shared with her husband and Jamie, now 3, Barkway recently reflected on the continuing impact of the catastrophe. "I feel more vulnerable," she said. "You never know when your life is going to end. It's scary to think there are these terrible people out there." Despite her fears, Barkway travelled to New York just weeks after the tragedy for a memorial service and visited the site where her husband died. "I pretty much cried the whole time," she says. At the ceremony, she met the families of other Canadian victims and some, such as Maureen Basnicki and Tanja Tomasevic, who coincidentally live nearby, have become close friends. ""I lost a loved one," says Barkway. "But other people were affected, too, and talking to them seems to help a lot."

Barkway has been touched by the kindness of family, friends and strangers. "I have had so many positive experiences, too," she says, showing a scrapbook with photos, tributes and condolences, including letters from George W. Bush and Jean CHRÉTIEN. She mentions the thoughtfulness of Canadians, including a Grade 5 class in Bracebridge, Ont., and Newfoundland miners who contributed to a trust fund set up for her boys by BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc., where her husband was managing director of capital markets.

While she grieves, Barkway worries about protecting her children. "I keep saying I want to be happy for them," she says. "But they also keep me happy. Dave was a pretty positive person. I think that's what he would want." Jamie was never exposed to the horrific television images of that day, but he still sometimes asks, "Where's Daddy?" At first, Barkway would answer, "He's gone to heaven." But with Jamie starting nursery school this month, a counsellor advised her to prepare him in case a classmate pointed him out as the boy whose daddy died on Sept. 11. So Barkway told him what happened, as simply and gently as she could. The words, repeated out of the blue to an aunt who was babysitting - "Daddy was in a building and a plane hit it" - were heart-searing.

Cindy Barkway had counted on continuing life as a stay-at-home mother; now she's trying to come to terms with an uncertain future. "So far, I'm doing OK financially," she says. "But I'm still trying to decide what to do about the house." A roster of family and friends has stayed with her since the tragedy, but she is only beginning to adjust to life without her husband. "At first, I was getting by day by day, then it was week by week," Barkway says. "Now I'm trying to focus on getting through September."

TRIBUTE FROM A DAUGHTER

Erica Basnicki had just started her second year at Toronto's Ryerson University when her father Ken was killed at the World Trade Center. Her dad, a 48-year-old financial marketing director with software firm BEA Systems in Toronto, was in New York on business when the first plane struck the north tower where he was attending a 106th-floor meeting. Basnicki left his wife Maureen, 50, a 16-year-old son Brennan and Erica, now 22, who hopes to continue her journalism studies at New York University, some 20 blocks from the disaster site, in January. She wrote the following for Maclean's:

OUR LIVES CHANGED forever the moment my dad phoned his mother from inside the World Trade Center and told her the building was filled with smoke and he wasn't sure if he was going to get out. What has kept me from completely losing it during the past 12 months are the words he spoke to me often: "Get over it, get on with it." He taught me not to dwell on the negative and to keep moving forward. They're just a few small words, but I've repeated them to myself so many times it's like I've become a broken record.

My father loved his Harley-Davidson. Had he died in a riding accident, I wouldn't have had to watch it almost every day. I wouldn't have had to read about it all the time. We would have never received a phone call from New York City's chief medical officer, describing in painfully graphic detail the exact length and weight of the body parts they recovered from Ground Zero.

Our family could have had a quiet funeral, grieved and recovered. Instead, we have been back and forth to New York for memorials, all the while wondering when the 24 Canadian lives lost in these acts of terrorism would be recognized in some meaningful way by the federal government. We would have spent time on the phone with family and friends, instead of journalists and lawyers.

My dad was in the wrong place at the wrong time and we've had to live with the awful consequences. But we've also been blessed many times over. Our living room is filled with sympathy cards, many from people we've never met. After the attack, our lawn was flooded with flowers. We received an angel quilt, hand sewn by people from across Canada and the U.S. Two workers at Ground Zero gave us a piece of the World Trade Center cut in the shape of a cross. My brother and I delivered a message of hope before the Pope and 75,000 people at the Vatican in March.

Because of scholarships available to children of 9/11 victims, New York University is financially feasible whereas before it wouldn't have been. Perhaps the biggest reason why I want to go is because, in order for terrorists to win, they have to succeed in terrorizing people. By going to New York I'm sending a message to them that no, I'm not afraid to live there, no, I'm not afraid to fly there, and so, no, the terrorists didn't win.

This has not been an easy year. What I am struck by most is that every time we've felt like we've reached the end of our rope, someone has come along and lifted our spirits and eased our burden. There is still love in people's hearts, not fear. Sometimes we cry, but eventually we smile again. We're scratched and bruised, but the terrorists did not break us. Our family is closer together than we've ever been and my dad's spirit is still with us. That's how we "get over it, get on with it," and make it through another day.

PAINFUL MEMORIES

For a long time after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Selena Dack-Forsyth believed that her only child was still alive. She told herself that Arron Dack, the 39-year-old senior vice-president at the financial technology firm Encompys, was wandering the streets of New York City with amnesia. He'd been attending a conference in the north tower of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit, and now, surely, he was just lost. "Because my son will survive even when no one else's did," she says, her voice raw with irony.

Visiting the still smouldering ruins at Ground Zero in October with her daughter-in-law Abigail Carter did little to help make her son's horror more concrete in her mind. "It was like we were looking at extraordinary sculptures. In a way, it was exquisitely beautiful," she recalls. "But it didn't help me in any way, shape or form. It just wasn't real." And even as she celebrated her 63rd birthday last month, Forsyth caught herself waiting for Arron's phone call. "It's bizarre," she says. "There are moments when you forget. But the constant barrage of 9/11 stuff soon reminds you."

Even in Port Hope, Ont., where she lives, Dack-Forsyth is confronted daily with Arron's death. Neighbours murmur their condolences. The cashier at the local grocery asks after Abigail and the grandchildren - Olivia, 7, and Carter, 3. The people she meets as the social columnist for the daily Port Hope Evening Guide also know. In fact, everyone in this small town knows who Dack-Forsyth is - and what she has lost. "The people have been remarkable," she says. Within weeks of Sept. 11, they held a benefit for her at a local pub. The "cushion of money" that was raised became a godsend, enabling Dack-Forsyth to visit Abigail and the kids in New Jersey five times in the past 10 months.

In mid-August, Dack-Forsyth joined the families of more than 600 victims in a lawsuit against the Sudanese government, Saudi princes, Arab banks, Islamic charities and Osama bin Laden. The suit, filed in a U.S. federal court, alleges that these individuals and organizations helped fund the terrorist attacks. "I have felt, since Sept. 11, more helpless than I've ever felt in my life," explains Dack-Forsyth, who worked at the CBC in Toronto before moving to Port Hope in 1997. "There was nothing I could do about the fact that my son died. But if, even in some small way, I could do something to stop the financing of terrorists and remove the threat of this kind of pain for any other mother, well, then maybe something might come of this." She pauses, looks out the window of her recently purchased 19th century farmhouse, and adds: "It will take years. That's fine. But my name is on that piece of paper and I am happy that it is."

Meanwhile, visits with Olivia and Carter and phone calls with Abigail buoy Dack-Forsyth's spirits. "Abigail and I prop each other up," she says. And only with Arron's family could she face this week's memorial service at Ground Zero. Initially, Dack-Forsyth didn't want to attend because it was too public, but then she came to a brutal realization. "We don't have anything of Arron," she says, explaining that the closest thing clean-up workers found was the briefcase of a colleague who was with her son at the conference. "The big hole is where he is. That's my son's final resting place. That's the only thing I've got."

A FATHER REMEMBERS

Ralph Gerhardt was an adventurous business grad from the University of Western Ontario who rose quickly at bond trader Cantor Fitzgerald. When he moved from his native Toronto to New York City in 2000, he was already a vice-president with the firm. His father Hans, a hotelier, spoke with Maclean's about life after losing one of his two sons:

What have you done to cope?

My family is lucky to have so many wonderful friends. We've received thousands of e-mails and letters - at one time we had 8,000 e-mails to go through. More than $70,000 has been collected in Ralph's honour and the majority of the money is going to Variety Village for handicapped children and young adults. We had a birthday party for him on June 6. He would have been 35. Forty of his friends came to our place. There was no gift giving or cake, just a celebration.

Are there specific moments which bring back memories?

There are so many, but there was a special one when we first arrived in New York the day after the tragedy. Before you could see Manhattan, you could smell the fire and see this giant smoke cloud. We didn't know if anything else had happened so we turned on the radio, and the Beatles' song Yesterday was playing. Whenever I hear that song I think about him.

Is there one special time with him that you remember most?

We think of him in so many ways. He would call every day. We would often go fishing together. He was my best fishing buddy. The last time we saw each other, he brought us a candle because both he and his mom shared a love for candles. I remember saying, 'Ralph, we need another candle like a hole in the head,' and he said, 'Dad, this one is different. Every time you light this candle, you will think of me.'

PLANTING A MEMORIAL

Any list of victims from Sept. 11 is incomplete without the thousands of children who lost a parent in the attack. The death of 45-year-old Mike Arczynski, a senior vice-president with insurance giant Aon Corp., left a void in the life of his seven children - including three from an earlier marriage. His widow Lori, 38, spoke with Maclean's about what the year has been like for her and her four children (Sydney, 10, Max, 9, Emma, 3, and Michael, who was born in February).

WE PLANTED A TREE in Vermont at my parents' place near where we got married. It looks like Mike because it's tall and lean. My parents have a guest house that we always used in the summer, and Mike loved to sit on the deck with his feet up and his morning coffee. Underneath the deck is a grassy area where he would play with the kids. We put the tree there.

We don't have any strong religious beliefs, but it's nice to think that through the energy of the four kids we can feel him around us. That's what the tree represents for us. Everyone came, including my stepchildren, his mom and one of his nephews. I moved to Vermont, as well. When we lived in England, we got to Vermont at least twice a year to be closer to my family, so it's important for me to be here.

My son Max has good days and bad days. The day he turned nine in June was a very bad day. Another tough day was when we went to Ground Zero the day marking the end of the cleanup in May. The other children didn't want to go, but Max asked me if he could come, so I took him. When they brought the stretcher out, which represented the bodies that had never been found, he saluted it. After the ceremony, he let go of my hand and walked up to firefighters and police officers and thanked them for trying to find his dad. It was really hard to watch, but I think it was a big turning point for him. As we got closer to the pit, there was so much grief. A lot of the women were older moms and I felt so bad for them. You raise a child and they make it to adulthood and then they're gone. Max still doesn't like to talk about Sept. 11, but it does come through in some of his play. When he plays Star Wars, the Jedi are always trying to get bin Laden.

I had a little boy in February, two days before Mike's birthday. I named him Michael after his dad. It's just another way for us to honour and remember him.

See also TERRORISM.

Maclean's September 16, 2002