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9/11: Ten Years Later

by Nicole Pensiero, Regina Schaffer, Peter Proko, Samantha Melamed and C.J. Mittica

A decade after the attacks, South Jersey remembers that fateful day—and what’s happened since.

To help commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, we asked South Jersey residents to share how it transformed their lives. We reached out to parents and wives who lost loved ones, volunteers who worked toward the recovery and politicians who saw our nation’s capital rocked. It’s been a decade since the worst terrorist attack on American soil, but that Tuesday morning is still vivid for many across the country. As we reflect back, here are some recollections of how the events touched individuals across our region.

“I can’t believe I’ve managed to get this far.”
The Marlton widow of a Flight 93 pilot is still coping with the loss.

Sometimes, Melodie Homer says, when she reflects on what our society cautiously calls “the events of September 11,” she still “can’t believe this is how things turned out.” “This,” meaning the life she leads today as a working, single mom, a long way from the life she imagined for herself up until that sunny Tuesday morning 10 years ago.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Melodie Homer was at her Marlton home with her 10-month-old daughter when CNN flashed the news that several commercial jets had been hijacked, and two had flown into the World Trade Center towers.

Anxious about her husband, LeRoy—a United pilot en route that morning from Newark to the West Coast—Melodie called his flight office, which relayed her message, “Just wanted to make sure you are OK,” directly to the cockpit. A minute or so later, the pilots received another message from the United Airlines dispatcher, this one warning of cockpit intrusions.

But it was too late.

Flight 93, co-piloted by LeRoy Homer—the dashing aviator Melodie had met on a blind date six years prior—was the last of four commercial jetliners hijacked by terrorists that morning, and the only one of those planes not to reach its intended target, believed to be the U.S. Capitol. It was later learned that passengers and crew attempted to wrest the Boeing 757 back from the hijackers, who then drove it into farmland near Shanksville, Pa.

Told and retold—most dramatically via the acclaimed 2006 movie United 93— what happened on that particular flight is far more than just a story to Melodie Homer. It became a devastatingly real and utterly life-changing event for both her and her young daughter.

“I remember the first few days, looking at the baby, and all I could see was everything she had lost,” she recalls. “To this day, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to totally wrap my mind around it.” More than anything, a decade later, she says, “I can’t believe I’ve managed to get this far without LeRoy.”

Over time, Homer rebuilt her life, returning to work as a pediatric nurse—the masters-educated RN is currently a clinical nursing instructor at Burlington County College—and adopting a baby boy, now 6. (“LeRoy and I planned to have more children: I decided to go ahead with the plan so that my daughter wouldn’t grow up without a sibling,” she says.)

The soft-spoken widow—who appeared in the recent documentary film Out of the Ashes (about the legal, moral and ethical ramifications of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund)—also found a positive way to keep her husband’s memory alive, through the establishment of the LeRoy W. Homer Jr. Foundation. Since 2002, the foundation has awarded 13 scholarships to young adults throughout the country wishing to pursue careers as pilots. “I know how much flying meant to LeRoy. This is a way to honor him while helping someone else achieve that dream,” she says.

This month, Homer will travel to Shanksville for the dedication of the Flight 93 National Memorial. Later this fall, her book, From Where I Stand: Flight 93 Pilot’s Widow Sets the Record Straight, will be released.

“There is one chapter about that day, which remains the dividing line between ‘before’ and ‘after’ for me,” she says. “The rest of the book is about my life from that day forward, and about the story of Flight 93 that most people believe happened—and how it is not the story that happened at all.” Initially hesitant to share her post-9/11 experiences “because there is no ending,” she ultimately decided that publishing her story would be another way to honor her husband’s memory.

“This was not about making it into a book about grief and how I’m all better now,” Homer says. “It doesn’t wrap up all nice and neat like that, and it never will. But I am hopeful it will shed light on what happened to the families.”

Lingering Loss
“Our memories are here.”

After the first plane crashed into the North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, Nick Brandemarti called his parents to let them know he was safe.

“‘It’s not my tower, mom. I’m OK.’” Those are words that have stayed with Nancy Brandemarti, of West Deptford. Shortly after that phone call, the second plane crashed into the South Tower. Life for the Brandemarti family changed forever.

Fast forward to 2011. There have been nine anniversaries marking the terror attack that killed Nick, a smart, athletic, 21-year-old Fordham University graduate with a whole life ahead of him.

This year, his parents Nancy and Nick planned on heading up to New York City to mark the 10th anniversary—but ultimately, they changed their minds. There were concerns about security and safety, particularly with the grandchildren coming along.

Instead, they will start their day at Chestnut Branch Park in Mantua Township, the site of the “Place of Reflection” 9/11 memorial. It is a small, quiet space with a bell and a piece of the Twin Towers inside a stone circle. Outside the circle, a plaque is dedicated to Nick Brandemarti.

“We don’t have memories of him there,” Nancy Brandemarti says, referring to the site of the attacks. “Our memories are here and at Fordham.”

Every September, members of the media approach, wanting to ask the family how they feel and what they are doing now. It is difficult, Nancy says, particularly when the same questions are asked over and over. At the same time, there is comfort in knowing that everyone wants to remember. “Everyone goes away, but for us, it never goes away,” Nancy says. “Not a day goes by—not an hour, not a minute—that we don’t think of him.”

“It doesn’t feel like 10 years.”

It was early August when Joyce Rodak was in Ocean City with one of her two daughters. Standing on the beach, they watched the waves. The water, Joyce recalls, seemed to go on forever.

“I was like, ‘John, where are you?’” Joyce says. “It doesn’t feel like 10 years.”

For Joyce and her daughters, Chelsea, 20, and Devon, 15, of Mantua Township, a decade may as well be a day. John Rodak was working in the South Tower of the World Trade Center when a plane struck his building on Sept. 11. He was 39.

“He was our captain,” Joyce says with a smile. “He was our team leader. He pulled it all together.”

Life seemed to stop. But at the same time, life needed to go on. For years, Joyce wasn’t able to even move her husband’s clothing from his dresser, much less go through it. But that changed recently. In February, Joyce met a woman who quilted and agreed to stitch together pieces of John’s clothing.

The heirloom quilt was just delivered recently. It is made from old T-shirts, sweatshirts, flannels and screened-on family photos—each and every section holding the memories of a devoted husband and father.

“We can talk forever about my husband,” Joyce says. “We can talk forever about John and how much we still miss him. I do it, because I think it’s important.”

Joyce and her daughters all put their hands on the quilt. “When I touch this,” Joyce says, “It’s like he’s here.”

Chaos on Capitol Hill
Two South Jersey politicians recall the confusion and fear surrounding the 9/11 attacks.

Congressman Rob Andrews doesn’t pause for a second when asked what about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks he remembers most. “Every element of that day is etched in my memory,” he says.

On that vividly memorable Tuesday morning, the Haddon Heights congressman was going about his normal routine, riding the train bound for D.C., when his wife phoned and said there had been an accident and a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. As he scrambled to get reports on his BlackBerry, his wife rang him again six minutes later: A second plane had flown into the other tower. It had become evident that this was no accident.

Shortly thereafter, Andrews exited the train at Union Station into a scene of utter chaos, “people running, yelling, screaming … total panic,” he says. Rumors were circulating that the Pentagon had been bombed as he made his way by car to Capitol Hill. When he arrived at the Senate Office Building, Andrews encountered Sen. Ted Kennedy standing on the lawn, taking pictures with tourists who were clearly not privy to the news unfolding around them. As soon as the picture was snapped, the two politicians were informed by Capitol Police: “We don’t want to yell this out, but there is a plane heading toward the Capitol, you’ve got to get out of here right away.”

Nearby, another South Jersey-based politician, Rep. Frank LoBiondo was conducting a meeting, also oblivious to anything out of the ordinary. “A police officer came in and said they were evacuating the Capitol. We said, ‘OK, we’ll wrap up and get out of here.’ He said, ‘No, you gotta get out of here now, and I mean run,’” LoBiondo recalls.

The legislators were taken to a bomb shelter nearby, where they would spend the next several hours trying to get updated reports, touch base with family and attempt to make sense of these calculated attacks on America.

“It was surreal and overwhelming to think this was happening in our country,” Andrews says. His two young daughters were removed from school and taken to the safety of their Haddon Township home, where an armed security detail stood watch outside amidst the uncertainty. Inside, the TV was kept off so as not to scare the children, but because there was no phone service in the bunker, Andrews’ only contact with his family was via e-mail.

LoBiondo echoes the feeling of helplessness. “We knew something really bad had happened,” he says. “We initially didn’t have the knowledge to the extent [of the attacks], and there was a fear of what’s coming, what does this all mean? The rush of emotions … the anxiety, the fear, the anger.”

Later, there was also relief. The annual White House picnic had been scheduled for early that evening, and Andrews’ wife and two daughters had planned on making the trip to D.C. to join him on the White House lawn later that day. Thankfully, the celebratory gathering was not a prime target in the attacks. “If the terrorists knew the entire government was going to be on the South Lawn at 5:30 at night, they could have killed everybody,” Andrews says.

Once it was determined that all the planes were out of the sky, the political leaders gathered on the steps of the Capitol, where some addressed the country and all sang a rendition of “God Bless America.” The days that followed brought a series of emergency sessions as more details of the plot unfolded and culprits were identified. It wasn’t until Saturday of that week that Andrews was able to return to South Jersey, where his two daughters stood waiting for him on the steps dressed in their Halloween costumes. “I was reminded how lucky we are to have a normal life, and how many were deprived of that life forever,” he says.

“There’s no question, in September 2001, we were not prepared to deal with 19 guys on airplanes with box cutters. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I’ve worked every day to change that and we’ve made some progress,” says Andrews. “Al Qaeda is severely weakened, but there are others. There are young Muslims being told that America is waging war on Islam, but that is not true. We need to tell the truth about this country, or there will be other 9/11’s in the future, because the lies breed that kind of response. There are a billion Muslims in the world, and the majority under 18; it doesn’t take many for them to believe the lie and become the next al Qaeda.”

While the 10th anniversary of the attacks stirs up the pain and horror of that day, Andrews couldn’t help but reflect back when U.S. Navy Seals captured and killed Osama bin Laden early this May. “I was among those who went to see the photos of the bin Laden corpse. I was asked the question: ‘Weren’t those horrible images?’ Yes, but they were a lot less horrible than looking at these families every Sept. 11. This about thousands of broken families who will never replace the person they lost.”

Looking back over the past decade, a lot has changed in our country as a direct result of that fateful morning, whether it’s long lines at airport security or color-coded terror threat alerts on the news. As we are reminded of the reality of terrorism in the world and the fragility of life, Americans have a renewed sense of priorities.

“On Sept. 10, the nation was going about its business, never willing to believe that something like this could happen on our shores,” LoBiondo says. “Sept. 11, our world changed forever. We’ll never have that normal again. It’s a different nation and a different psyche. Things were much different, much simpler on Sept. 10.”

The Long Recovery
A Camden County rescue worker recalls the scene at Ground Zero.

At 9:15 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, the chime of his beeper changed everything for James Jankowski, chief of communications for the Camden County Department of Public Safety. A member of the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Team, Jankowski was being summoned to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, to assist with rescue and recovery efforts.

By 11:15 a.m., the Atco resident had reported to his team’s gathering point in Lakehurst. And by 1:30 p.m., the group had made its way to New York City to set up a temporary base at the Javits Center, perched by the edge of the Hudson River on 11th Avenue. By 5 p.m., Jankowski had his first up-close glimpse of the wreckage of the collapsed twin towers.

“It was just completely overwhelming,” he recalls. “You could tell the people that had been there and seen the sights, because they had this look in their eye like they were stunned. My first thought when I saw it was, it would take years to clean up. It made you feel very humble and very small. It was that big when you got close to it.”

Still, Jankowski didn’t have much time to marvel. He and his team of policemen, doctors, nurses, engineers and firefighters—Jankowski himself is a 31-year fireman—immediately set to work helping New York’s own rescue team set up equipment, because “most of their members had perished in the collapse.... There was a lot of chaos and confusion at first, and that evolved as the days went on.”

In all, Jankowski spent 10 days clearing away rubble and searching for bodies at Ground Zero, returning after 12- to 15-hour shifts to a cot at the Javits Center base camp and to an altered reality.

“It set in during the first night when we were laying in our cots, and you could hear the fighter planes flying over New York City,” says Jankowski. “That sunk in that it was a totally different time.”

As a rescue worker, Jankowski has worked on missions around the country: Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Tropicana garage collapse in Atlantic City and flooding in North Jersey. He says 9/11 was the most devastating. “Very quickly, on the first or second day, we realized that we weren’t going to find anybody alive, and everyone came to that realization by themselves. You came to that realization within yourself that this was strictly recovery. Katrina was different: we brought live people out of Katrina,” he says.

That was psychologically taxing and also made working with rescue dogs more challenging, since they’re trained to hit on live scents. After returning home from Ground Zero, he says, some dogs needed to be retrained.

There were occasional moments of hope though. After spending four hours digging a body out from under a steel beam, Jankowski emerged to see President George W. Bush, who gave a short speech from atop a fire truck. “It was really inspiring, and everyone went back to work with a different feeling after that,” he says.

After 10 days, the New Jersey team was relieved by search and rescue workers from another state. Coming home was necessary, says Jankowski, whose son was only 3 years old at the time—but it wasn’t easy.

“That was a very difficult moment. There were a lot of tears that day. A lot of people left with a feeling that the mission was not accomplished, that we didn’t get our job done. There was still searching to be done,” he says. “Everyone there was exhausted, and you knew in your mind this wasn’t going to be done in a week, but you knew there was still work to be done.”

A Helping Hand
A Moorestown counselor worked to heal victims’ families.

The wounds were still fresh. Their brother, an up-and-coming financial analyst with three children and a pregnant wife, died in the towers. And yet, along the way to the Ground Zero memorial dedication, the victim’s family was laughing, reminiscing about their childhood. “This was trying to remember the good times,” says John Blum, a Moorestown-based counselor who accompanied them. “And I found that very, very uplifting.”

Such were the stories that stuck with Blum, a licensed personal counselor who worked as a volunteer at the New Jersey Family Assistance Center, created to provide services and personal attention to those who lost loved ones in the attack. Blum worked as a “companion” —sometimes assigned to a family, other times roving around the center to sit with people and lend an ear and professional voice for those in need.

There were the positive moments, but also difficult ones, like the time Blum had to sit with a man so traumatized that he couldn’t even fill out the necessary paperwork. “It was very painful,” Blum says of the four-month span when he volunteered. “It brought out a lot of issues of hopelessness, and hope out of a very devastating situation.”

But Blum will offer his help again by returning to the Family Assistance Center for the 10th anniversary of the attack. It should prove slightly less difficult than that first trip back to Ground Zero, where other companions dissolved into a mess of tears and despair. “I felt terrible, horrible actually,” Blum recalls. “But I had to put on a game face and show I was feeling some empathy.” As did an entire nation.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 6 (September, 2011).
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