9/11: 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.”

Shari had been passionate about dancing since age two, when she first begged her mother for lessons. After college, her dream had carried her to New York, where she’d hoped to dance professionally. But a single, discouraging audition set her on a different course, toward becoming a teacher. “I got cut pretty quickly,” she says. “I had no idea why. I quit the business of ‘making it’ on Broadway right there.”

When classes at Hannah Senesh resumed on September 14, Shari stuck a flyer on the school’s bulletin board, asking for dance-company sign-ups. By the end of the week, she had 30 young students—but no studio, business plan or bank account. “All of a sudden, I’m getting checks,” she says. “I had to call my dad: ‘What do I do?’ ”

She found space in a Brooklyn warehouse and learned the business as she went. Other dance teachers told her where to find insurance for her company; one parent sewed costumes, and another became stage manager. Ten years later, Shari still works at the school—and UpBring Dance Company numbers about 60 children, in classes such as boys-only hip-hop, performance dance and musical theater. Parents plead for their kids to be put in the front of the chorus line, but Shari knows some thrive at the back, out of the spotlight. “I’m a really good children’s teacher and choreographer,” she says. “I don’t cook, I don’t sew, but I do this one thing really well. September 11 gave my life new meaning. At least there’s art being created out of this terrible day; there’s some beauty that exists.”

The grieving wife ~ On September 11, 2001, Patti Quigley was eight months pregnant with her second child. Her husband, Patrick, a frequent business traveler, was nearly late for the airport that Tuesday morning; he had to iron his pants. But he made the plane, Flight 175 from Boston’s Logan to Los Angeles—the second jetliner to tear into the World Trade Center.

In the weeks that followed, friends, family and strangers rallied with homemade suppers, gifts of money and letters of sympathy. The couple’s five-year-old, Rachel, went back to school when it reopened. Patti gave birth to a daughter, Leah, barely a month after Patrick died. Slowly, life began to reset. Patti held a memorial service for Patrick and moved her wedding ring from her left hand to her right, thinking, I’m a widow now.

Through friends, Patti met Susan Retik, whose husband was on the first hijacked flight, and the two decided to launch Beyond the 11th, a nonprofit that helps widows in Afghanistan return to school and find work. But by 2007, Patti, who’d had a banking career before starting her family, was rethinking her goals. “I didn’t want to be the face of 9/11 anymore,” she says.

Then, on a crisp spring day later that year, Patti drove from her home in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to visit an Afghan émigré she’d met at a fund raiser. Razia Jan owned a tailoring and dry-cleaning store in Duxbury and had sewn four quilts in honor of the 9/11 victims. That day, the two discussed the girls’ school that Razia had just finished building outside Kabul. She hoped to raise money to staff it and run it through her foundation, Razia’s Ray of Hope.

For Patti, this became a way to shed her widow’s mantle. When Razia returned to Afghanistan to launch the school, Patti became executive director of the foundation. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a $50,000 donation from Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini. Today the Zabuli Education Center, a whitewashed building behind stone walls, has 316 students, all girls, who study there year-round for free. It was the first girls’ school in the region and remains the only free school.

As part of Razia’s Ray of Hope outreach in the United States, Patti holds show-and-tell talks with American teenagers at schools and community centers. At each session, she asks a girl in the audience to walk around in a burka. “If you were 15 in Afghanistan, this is what you would wear when you went to the market or when you were out with your friends,” she tells them. “It’s not easy to walk around in it. You can get headaches. They go, ‘Wow.’ Watching a teenager look outside herself and see that she can help a girl halfway around the world have a better life—that’s rewarding.” Patti loves to hear Razia’s stories about the Zabuli students who help their fathers read the newspaper. The next generation, she says, “will help Afghanistan become its own country again.”

The refocused executive ~ The first inkling Allison Davis had that something was wrong came when a cop stopped her two blocks from the World Trade Center, just before 9 AM on September 11. “Let the fire engines go first,” the officer said; a small plane had crashed into one of the towers, but everything was fine. Allison, a vice president at CBS-TV, headed to an ATM to withdraw cash. Suddenly, big white mailing envelopes began falling from the sky, trailing their red waxed-cotton ties like kite tails. Black three-ring notebooks filled with documents began to strike the pavement, bursting as they hit. Still unaware of the unfolding tragedy, New Yorkers stepped over and through the raining debris, continuing their walk to work. “That’s when we heard the roar,” Allison says. “I looked up and saw the ball of fire above me as the second plane went into the building.” Instinctively, she hit the ground. Lying there, -Allison—who had been a journalist for more than 25 years—fished a camera from her shoulder bag and began shooting blindly, until the screaming sirens and the panic of the crowd brought her to her feet. We could be at war, she thought. Do I run toward the story or toward my children, my family?

For the first time in her life, Allison chose home. Until that point, she had been entirely dedicated to her career, rising through the ranks at NBC-TV and then at CBS-TV. Her husband, a video editor with a flexible work schedule, had always filled the -primary-caregiver role. “I got both sons off the breast early,” she says. “I put them in their dad’s arms and said, ‘OK, see you.’ ” When her first son was nine months old, she spent a month in Australia for the Today show. She worked in Zimbabwe for a month before her second boy turned six months old.

On 9/11, Allison’s priorities began shifting away from “landing the big story,” as she puts it, to finding meaning in her life. “I became much more involved in the lives of my children,” she says. “I needed to know that I could succeed at being a good mom. And I needed their strength.” She started spending more time with her kids, attending lacrosse and baseball games and helping to run a youth-group basketball team in her hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey.

Allison wanted to use her media skills to support the work of non-profits but didn’t see a way to transition into that field until a 2003 restructuring at CBS gave her the chance to leave with a small financial cushion. That year she launched her own company, Coopty, producing promotional films for nonprofits and minority-owned firms, and she became COO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which provides scholarships for minority students. Finally, in 2009, she found the balance she’d yearned for with a unique mix of paid and volunteer work: as director of communications for Riverside Church in New York, mentor to young journalists of color, professor of journalism at the City University of New York and board member of several nonprofits. “All that I took for granted—my family and my talents, my health—I no longer take for granted,” she says. “What gives me joy is the ability to impact the lives of young people.”

HELEN ZELON is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in New York, City Limits, Scientific American and Ms.

See also "9/11 Changed My Life" about financial-exec-turned-filmmaker Mary Skinner.

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First Published Thu, 2011-07-28 09:45

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