When Life Forces You to Reinvent

Four women took the loss, grief and shock of September 11 and forged new paths for their families and themselves.

By Helen Zelon
Melodie Homer’s foundation has provided scholarships to 13 young people who want to become pilots.
Photograph: Ben Hoffman

The pilot’s widow ~ On the morning of September 11, 2001, Melodie Homer watched the morning news, transfixed and terrified, her 10-month-old baby, Laurel, seated on her lap. Her husband, LeRoy Homer Jr., the copilot on United Airlines Flight 93, had taken off from Newark International Airport at 8:42 AM, after the attacks on the World Trade Center had begun but before the grounding of all air traffic in the continental United States. At 9:22, Melodie called in an emergency message that was relayed to the cockpit two minutes before the flight officers received official warnings about possible attacks. At 9:28, the hijacking began. And at 10:03, after a struggle in which the pilots, crew and passengers tried to stop the terrorists, the plane crashed in an empty field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, short of its target in Washington, D.C. All 44 people on board were killed. A search team later recovered LeRoy’s military dog tags and his wedding ring, inscribed with the Bible verse that was read at the couple’s marriage ceremony.

For months after LeRoy’s death, grief threatened to overcome Melodie. “There were times I could hardly move,” she says. “I was very ‘not well’ for a long time.” She held on to her job as a consultant to a pharmaceutical company, but, she says, “I was torn between ‘I can barely get out of bed’ and ‘I want to do something.’ ” She talked with friends, family and LeRoy’s colleagues, searching for inspiration.

One of nine children, LeRoy believed that his pilot’s license had opened many doors for him, first as a student at the U.S. Air Force Academy and later as a decorated officer and commercial airline pilot. In 2002, to honor LeRoy’s life, Melodie started the LeRoy W. Homer Jr. Foundation  to provide scholarships for young adults who want to become pilots. She sought donations from local businesses, corporations and nonprofits. “It gave me something to focus on, something to keep me grounded,” she says. “I’m not a fund raiser, but having very specific things I needed to do helped me emotionally.”
In 2003 she quit her consulting job, and the next year she adopted a son, Alden. Today Melodie teaches nursing part time at Burlington County College, near her home in Marlton, New Jersey. Mostly, she focuses on outreach for the foundation. She often speaks to disadvantaged kids about careers in aviation, and this fall she is publishing a memoir, From Where I Stand: Flight #93 Pilot’s Widow Sets the Record Straight. Lately, raising money for the foundation has become increasingly difficult: Average training costs for solo pilots have risen, from $5,000 in 2003 to $13,000 now. But quitting is out of the question. Already the foundation has sponsored 13 pilot trainees. “We are not going to fold,” she says. “After my children, the foundation is my baby.”

The inspired teacher ~ The 14 first-graders from Hannah Senesh school in Brooklyn couldn’t take their eyes off the flames and smoke pouring out of two giant holes at the top of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. From their glass-walled gym, the kids had a perfect view of the catastrophe unfolding in lower Manhattan. Shari Lee Polis, a teacher at the school, quickly shepherded them away and into a small classroom. But they’d seen the grownups whispering, heard them crying in the hall. They barraged Shari with questions she couldn’t answer.

By 1 PM, frantic parents had fetched their kids. Shari called her own family in New Jersey; her father wept to hear her voice. When she got home late that afternoon, her tiny Brooklyn apartment felt weirdly still. A fine layer of ash had settled on the kitchen sink, the floors. “It flew up when I sat down on my bed,” she says. Tracing the dust with her fingertips, she wondered what she was touching. Suddenly, she remembered something: She’d planned to meet a friend that afternoon at his office, on a high floor of Two World Trade Center. (Her friend survived the attacks.) “That moment, sitting on my bed, it hit me: I almost died today,” she says. “I realized I needed to do something with my life now. I wanted to create a dance company for children.”

First Published September 6, 2011

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