First published in Filipinas Magazine, September 2002.
For Grace Alviar, 53, whose husband Cesar, 60, was among those killed in the twin towers, there may never be a silver lining in the dark clouds cast upon her family.
“It’s really hard to cope and I don’t know if I ever will,” she said. “I will never have closure. The pain has worsened because reality has set in. He will never be around and the emptiness and loneliness will always be there.”
Grief overcomes her, she said, especially when she’s alone in her bedroom and sees her husband’s empty side of the bed. “Sometimes I tell myself he’s just in a coma in some hospital and that one day he’ll come home. But that can never be the case,” she said. “It’s true what they say, ‘When you laugh, the whole world laughs with you. But when you cry, you cry alone.’”
Grace and her children Christopher, Ginny and Gemma went to the medical examiner in New York recently where victims’ remains are kept for identification. Grace said all she could do was pray that her husband’s remains would be found.
Cesar, who worked for Marsh & McLennan on the 94th floor of the World Trade Center Tower 1, was two floors down from where American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 en route from Boston to Los Angeles, crashed.
When search and recovery in Ground Zero ended in April without a trace of Cesar, Grace and her children attended the closing rites to pay homage to him. Grace said he will “forever be on the 94th floor.”
A sea of people gathered around the demolished landmark in what is now a memorial to thousands of sudden heroes. “It was so hard being there. My children and I broke down and cried especially when the empty stretcher was paraded for the remains that were never found.”
Grace, who works at the finance department of Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, New Jersey, is so unused to Cesar’s absence that she still speaks of him in the present tense.
The sweetness of their 28-year marriage was highlighted in a New York Times article published last year.
Grace said she has to remain strong especially for her three children. “Half of my soul is gone because as husband and wife, I considered us as one. Before I had a partner to help me out. Now I have to solve the problems that come my way all by myself and I find it difficult a lot of the time.”
Grace, who lives in Bloomfield, New Jersey with her children, immigrated to the United States in 1983. Grace hails from Dagupan, Pangasinan, while her husband was a native of Calamba, Laguna.
Strength from Daughter
Ruben Ornedo was on his way home across the continent to be with his pregnant wife Sheila, when five terrorists decided his fate. The Los Angeles-bound American Airlines Flight 77 Boeing 757 plowed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing over a hundred people.
A year later, Sheila remains strong with her daughter Robin as her source of courage.
“When Sheila is sad, Robin cheers her up. She’s come to terms with what has happened. She’s OK now,” said Sheila’s mother, 76-year-old Nita Galero. “Although she is doing better now, she still talks to me to ease her grief.”
Sheila and Ruben were married on June 9, 2001. She was three months pregnant when her husband died. The tragedy almost cost her the pregnancy, but her will to survive prevailed.
Sheila gave birth to a healthy baby girl on January 31 and named her after Ruben.
“Robin is seven months old. She is good-natured, just like Ruben,” said Galero. When Robin cries, Sheila calls on her husband, and the baby’s crying fit subsides. “It’s as if Ruben were still here, beside them,” Galero said.
Heroes from 9/11
Emergency nurse Rebecca Canalija is a picture of strength to all her patients at NYU Downtown Hospital, and an example of heroism for the people of New York, most especially the patients she tended to the morning of September 11.
When the single mother felt the ground beneath her shake that fateful morning, she knew the day would be like no other.
“I thought the hospital was going to be wiped out because we were only two blocks away from Ground Zero. There were people stampeding away from the site because they said the area was being bombed,” she recalled.
Worried for her and her co-workers’ safety, Canalija said operations continued even without electricity and means of communication.
“We had about 500 patients, and I saw things I’ve never seen before. People were being brought in with different kinds of injuries and we had to figure out for ourselves what was wrong with them,” she said. “At one point, I was holding a man’s brain in my hand, while others had skin torn out with their flesh hanging out.”
The hospital was immediately filled to capacity. Canalija worked around the clock. Soon after, the patients were transferred to other hospitals to make way for more victims.
“By 3 p.m., we didn’t have any more patients and there was an eerie silence in the hospital,” she recalled.
Canalija heeded her call of duty despite near exhaustion. She went to Ground Zero to distribute medical supplies and to offer any type of help. “When I got there, all I could see was a mountain of rubble, no bodies anywhere. I went home at 1 a.m. and I was basically screaming the whole time because I did not know how to deal with this nightmare.”
For weeks, Canalija sought comfort in her ten-year-old daughter and family in the Philippines through her daily phone calls. She cried herself to sleep.
Her horrific experience brings chills down her spine. Canalija said there’s nothing more to do now but move on and live with the lessons she learned.
Canalija was among the “Faces of Ground Zero,” an exhibit by longtime Life photographer Joe McNally, which toured the country starting in Grand Central in New York. She was also featured in the companion book Faces of Ground Zero: Portraits of the Heroes of September 11, 2001 and lauded for her heroism in this year’s Philippine Independence Ball held in New York.
“Some families woke up in the morning of Sept. 11 not knowing that was the last time they were going to see their loved ones. Because of that uncertainty, love of family has been magnified,” she said. “It was really tragic, but at least I was able to help people and that keeps me going. I just hope I spent more time with my patients.”
While Canalija lived to tell her tale, the family of David Marc Sullins can only imagine what he experienced that fateful morning. Marc, an emergency medical technician for Cabrini Medical Center, was among the paramedics who responded to the emergency call following the initial attack.
When Marc’s wife Evelyn heard the news, she said she knew that her husband would be there, rescuing victims. But when she heard that her husband was reported missing, she said she felt a certain kind of calm somewhat uncommon among the victims’ families.
In a website honoring Marc Sullins, family and friends characterized him as an “extremely hard working, warm and caring individual” who often reminded his co-workers to “take care of one another out there.”
Marc’s colleagues regard him as a hero. For Evelyn, who is now both the mother and father, her husband will always be the angel of their children Julian and Christian.
(The Marc Sullins Fund has been established by the Cabrini Mission Foundation to care for and support the ongoing needs of the Sullins family.)
Grieving in Private
While some victims’ families have expressed their grief in public, Philippine Consul General in New York Lingling Lacanlale said many choose to mourn away from the limelight.
“I have been in touch with some of the victims’ families and many of them would like to keep their grief in private. I’m sure that will be the same case with the commemoration of the September 11 anniversary,” she said.
The September 11 attacks killed Americans and citizens of 78 countries, including 18 known Filipino Americans who died in the twin towers, Lacanlale said.
The victims were: Grace Alegre Cua, Arnold A. Lim, Hector Tamayo, Carl Allen Peralta, Cynthia Betita Tinio Motus-Wilson, Ramon Grihalvo, Benilda P. Domingo, Jayceryll de Chavez, Marlyn Bautista, Marites Santillan, Judy Fernandez, Frederick Kuo Jr., Cesar Alviar, Rufino Flores Santos, David Marc Sullins, Larry Sumaya, Manuel L. Lopez and Cecile Caguicla. Of the 18 victims, the remains of only four, Ramon Grihalvo, David Marc Sullins, Larry Sumaya and Manuel Lopez, have been recovered.
Not included in the Philippine consulate’s count were the three Filipino Americans on board the doomed flights–Ornedo, Ronald Gamboa and Manolito Kaur.
Gamboa, a 30-year-old Gap store manager in Santa Monica, California, was with his partner lawyer Daniel Brandhorst and their son David, when their plane crashed into one of the twin towers. A news report from the Los Angeles Times said Gamboa, Brandhorst and their son were on their way back from a vacation in Boston and Cape Cod.
Kaur, whose family lives in New Jersey, was en route to San Francisco aboard United Airlines Flight 93 for business and a family reunion when the doomed jetliner went down on an open field in Somerset County in Pennsylvania.
Back to Normal
Lacanlale said that while the Filipino community mourns the death of the 4,000-plus victims, life for most has returned to normal.
“The tragedy leaves a very sad imprint on each of us and it will forever be there. Despite that, I think the Filipino people have gotten back on their feet, going about their lives,” said Lacanlale.
Normalcy is most palpable at the Philippine consulate, where Lacanlale said her staff has fully recovered.
“We all had to cope together because we have to continue serving the people. It is business as usual in the office despite the terrorist threats we hear in the news.”
While the consulate has its hands full with preparations for various events to commemorate the anniversary of the attacks, Lacanlale said she and her staff are available to address the concerns of the community. “Before the terrorist attacks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service didn’t really forcefully hunt down undocumented citizens,” said Lacanlale. “But now they really knock on people’s doors and the community is concerned, seeing the Absconders’ Apprehension Initiative Act as a direct result of the terrorist attacks. What we do is advise the people to be really cautious and really think about seeking legal status,” she advised. “There’s always questions about human rights and we will always look after the safety of the Filipino citizens,” she said. “If their basic civil rights are threatened, we will take action.”
Since search and recovery efforts in Ground Zero were officially declared finished, there have been several proposals to construct memorials for the victims of 9/11.
“Nothing will ever replace the World Trade Center,” said Gloria Paulino, a former United Nations administrative manager, who has lived in Manhattan for 30 years. “But whatever is built on the old site should honor all of the people who died as well as those who rushed to help in the rescue and recovery efforts, no matter their origins.”
G. Mayumi R. Querubin is a free-lance writer based in Oakland, California.