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Families can never forget

| Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2002

The day that changed America dawned bright and beautiful along her eastern coast.

In New York, the twin pillars of the World Trade Center stretched toward a deep blue Manhattan sky. On the 89th floor of the south tower, former Ligonier resident Richard Herron Woodwell was settling in for another day of equity trading at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. The senior vice president liked to arrive at work around 8 a.m., about an hour and a half before the stock market opened.

Judy Colfer, of Greensburg, was awaiting the start of a one-day seminar on the 55th floor of the north tower. It was her first trip to the towers that rose 110 stories above New York's financial district.

At Boston's Logan Airport, former Irwin resident Brian P. Dale, and David Kovalcin, formerly of North Huntingdon Township, were boarding American Airlines Flight 11 for business trips to the West Coast.

It was a typical morning in America on Sept. 11 one year ago. Husbands and wives exchanged telephone calls. Co-workers chatted near the water cooler.

Then terrorists delivered their lethal calling cards.

Colfer, a 30-year employee of Mine Safety Appliances in O'Hara Township, Allegheny County, was halfway up the north tower when the first of two hijacked planes found its target. She considers herself one of the lucky ones. She made it out.

Before Colfer left her hotel for the seminar, she talked by phone to her family — her husband, Gene, and sons Brian, 14, and Brenden, 11. She told Brian she'd be home in time to pick him up at soccer practice. She was wearing the angel pin that Brenden had given her when he was in first grade.

She remembers the 55th floor's fantastic view and how safe she felt after passing through a thorough security check just to enter the complex. Then at 8:46 a.m., the building "rocked like an earthquake."

American Airlines Flight 11 had slammed into the north tower some 40 floors above her.

Colfer went down 55 floors one step at a time while firefighters were climbing up, loaded with gear. It took about an hour to reach the basement, and finally, outside. By then, a second plane — United Airlines Flight 175 — had plowed into the south tower.

Following the directions of police and firefighters, Colfer ran for her life. But she couldn't escape the cloud of dust that came from the collapsing towers. She was covered in it.

"White as a sheet of paper," she said.

Today, Colfer holds her boys a little tighter. She said her family has become even closer in the year since her escape from the infernos that collapsed both towers.

"Never forget to kiss somebody goodbye. Tell them, 'I love you.'" she said. "Reach out and hold your loved ones. Treasure the moment because you may never have it again."

She also has a greater sense of faith.

Colfer feels she was saved from death one year ago. The white cloud that swallowed her reminded her of the white light described by those who have had near-death experiences.

"In that white cloud of dust, I thought I had died. I thought I had crossed over. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face," she said. "But God said, 'Your work is not done. You have to go back.'"

She goes to church at Holy Cross in Youngwood every Sunday. "I don't miss. God protected me that day."

But the scars are deep.

Colfer has had "some pretty horrible nightmares." She can relive her ordeal at a moment's notice. She will not be going back to New York anytime soon.

"I can close my eyes this minute and I'm right there. I can tell you what it smelled like, I can tell you what it sounded like," said Colfer, who has not sought counseling.

She said she will never feel safe again. The family now pays attention to every little detail, taking note of strangers and suspicious behavior.

"You have to go on with your life, but you have to be more aware. You can't let your guard down," said Colfer, who will participate Wednesday in a memorial service at a Monroeville church.

DIFFICULT YEAR

Families who lost loved ones in the attacks said the past year has been difficult.

Elizabeth Kovalcin somehow knew that her husband, David, was on the first jetliner that crashed into the trade center when she heard on television that it was a Boston to Los Angeles flight.

David Kovalcin, 42, a senior mechanical engineer for Raytheon, was headed to Santa Barbara on business. A 1977 graduate of Norwin Senior High School and a 1985 grad of Penn State University, he was one of nine Penn State alumni killed in the World Trade Center collapse.

The Kovalcins lived in Hudson, N.H., with their two children, Rebecca, 5, and Marina, 2. David was home every night at 6 p.m., opting for family life over longer hours and more money.

One year later, Elizabeth Kovalcin used three words to describe how they are doing: "Empty, lonely and struggling." She said the family is living in a gray area.

"There are no good days," she said. "There are no ups, there are real downs. There is not a lot of laughter."

It's 10 times more difficult to lose someone in a tragedy of this magnitude, she said.

"You can reconcile yourself to other kinds of death. But the scope of this is so huge," she said. "Under most circumstances after one year, you're starting to get on with your life. I don't know of any families who are doing well now."

She's in a support group for Sept. 11 victims, about 16 people — parents, siblings and spouses. "I thank God for them every day," she said.

Kovalcin said she is more religious now. She relishes the support she receives at her church.

She also is involved with Families of September 11— an organization of about 3,000 families that has called for an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the attacks and has opposed efforts to rebuild at the World Trade Center site. She's taken a proactive approach to dealing with her loss, reading FBI transcripts and giving "hundreds of interviews." Among them were two interviews with the FBI that could become part of the government's case against Zacarias Moussaoui.

Moussaoui is on trial in Alexandria, Va., charged with conspiring with the men who attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The bureau will select the stories of 30 victims to represent a cross-section of everyone killed that day. Their survivors will testify during the sentencing portion of the trial if Moussaoui is convicted.

Kovalcin doesn't feel she did very well in conveying her husband's personality. "They asked me what I'd miss most about him. And I put down everything that annoyed me. I miss the way he'd slam the cupboard doors in the morning and wake up the girls. I miss seeing a trail of milk from the refrigerator to the stairs. That's what I could think of — the things that bothered me, because right now they're the things I miss the most."

CEDAR CHEST

A cedar chest holds a collection of newspapers and "every card, every letter" the family has received. They're for the girls; Kovalcin said she can't look at the contents of the chest yet.

The Kovalcin family will be in New York tomorrow, said Ed Kovalcin of North Huntingdon, David's brother. Ed and his wife, Lisa, and their children will meet Elizabeth there for the city's daylong observance of the one-year anniversary of the attacks.

It's not something he's looking forward to.

"You work real hard at trying to forget about it," Ed Kovalcin said. "Not a week goes by that I don't see those twin towers burning. It stops your heart."

Lisa Kovalcin said the past year has been hard for her family. Twice this summer they went to Shanksville, Somerset County, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11. Her husband needed to find some sort of connection, she said.

"It's so hard to not have anywhere to go to say goodbye," Lisa Kovalcin said. No remains of David Kovalcin were found.

Pam Geerdes of Rochester, Minn., said she hoped against hope that her brother, Richard Herron Woodwell, "was on a business trip somewhere" on Sept. 11. When the second plane hit the south tower where he worked, she called her sister-in-law, Linda Woodwell, hoping to hear that he wasn't in the building.

Richard Woodwell, 45, a 1979 graduate of Dartmouth, was one of six Dartmouth alumni who died at the World Trade Center. The father of three — Richard Jr., 12, Margaret, 9, and Eleanor, 5 — was killed when United Flight 175 struck the south tower at 9:05 a.m.

Geerdes said the close-knit family is doing the best it can.

"I think about it every day. We all have that vision of the planes crashing into the buildings," she said. "To realize you had someone you loved in there ... to realize that he realized what was happening is hard."

Geerdes and her family, along with her brother, J.K. Woodwell, and his wife, Joni, of Spokane, Wash., spent a week recently with Linda Woodwell and her children. She said Linda Woodwell told them she '"keeps thinking that Sept. 12 will come along and I'll feel better."

Geerdes and J.K. Woodwell won't be going to New York for the memorial service. Linda Woodwell will attend a service tomorrow held by Keefe, Bruyette & Woods at a Manhattan church.

J.K. Woodwell said the family visited ground zero about 10 days after the attack. At that time, it was still a rescue operation.

"It was ungodly. There was white dust everywhere. The smell I will never forget. It was like burning man-made stuff," he said. "To see the destruction and the size of it ... It must have been horrible."

Part of Richard Woodwell's remains were found in December. He was buried in March near his home in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J.

That little bit of closure hasn't made it any easier, J.K. Woodwell said. One year later, it's still a day-to-day thing. "No good has come out of this," he said.

And while most Americans are starting to forget the tragedy of Sept. 11, he said, "For the victims, we are going to live with it forever."

Kirsten Pastrick, society editor at the McKeesport Daily News, agrees that losing a loved one in an event on the scale of Sept. 11 makes it difficult for families.

Pastrick was working in the newsroom when her mother called and said her cousin, Brian P. Dale, was aboard American Airlines Flight 11.

"It's hard to grasp. It was so surreal when it was happening — even now it's surreal. Your grief is shared by so many people. It's a shared grief, but it's so personal to us and the rest of the families," she said.

Dale, 43, was a 1976 graduate of Norwin Senior High School and a 1980 graduate of Dartmouth. He was a founder of Blue Capital Management, a New York City-based investment firm. He is survived by his wife, Louanne, and children, Jacob, 4, and 2-year-old twins, Russell and Rachel.

Louanne Dale and the children have moved from their home in Warren, N.J., to Mt. Lebanon, Allegheny County, where they live with her husband's mother, Mary Dale. Pastrick said the close, extended family gathers for a picnic each summer and a Christmas party in the winter.

At a recent picnic, they all found strength in their faith, she said.

One year later, Pastrick finds herself noticing the little things and paying closer attention to world events. "You pay a little more attention to things that are going on now."

Looking back, she marvels that the death toll wasn't higher.

"There were so many miracles that day — not for us — but so many people were not where they were supposed to be," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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