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Public loss, private grief

These families appreciate the support as neighbors and a nation share their pain. But in the end, they must deal with loss in their own ways and in their own time.

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002


These families appreciate the support as neighbors and a nation share their pain. But in the end, they must deal with loss in their own ways and in their own time.

SPRING HILL -- Sept. 11 gave Manny Mojica a kind of fame he never wanted.

His son, Manuel Mojica Jr., a New York City firefighter, died in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Afterward, the elder Mojica found comfort in giving interviews about his son and attending memorials for all the lost firefighters.

Mojica, a Hernando County school bus driver, talked to newspaper and television reporters.

When the New York Yankees came to town to play the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he threw out the first pitch. He carried the Olympic torch in October when it passed through Ormond Beach on its way to Salt Lake City. In June, he helped the U.S. Postal Service dedicate a new stamp.

But the problem with these events, he said, is they only last a short time while his grief never goes away.

"It's always imbedded right in here that I lost him," he said, putting his hand on his chest.

Mojica was one of at least three Hernando County residents to lose a son or daughter in the attack. Joe Holland's son, Joey, was attending a meeting of commodities brokers at the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. Barbara Fay's son, Gerard Schrang, a member of an elite Fire Department rescue unit, died after responding to the attack; Fay, who spends summers in New York state, was not available for an interview.

Another couple, Steve and Mary Rudzianis, lost their son-in-law, Martin De Meo, a firefighter with a hazardous materials unit.

All the relatives who agreed to be interviewed shared some of the same feelings. They appreciated the public support after last Sept. 11. But in the year since, they have come to realize that grief is private and recovering from the tragedy is lonely work.

"I don't want to share no tears any more," Mojica said.

Words better left unsaid

Mojica is coping with his loss now the way he did at first.

For three days after the attacks, he sat at home watching the news and calling New York to try to get information about his son.

The younger Mojica was a high school football player, a Marine and a body builder who commuted to the fire station on a Harley-Davidson. The elder Mojica, besides being a retired New York City police officer, once boxed professionally. He was raised to be tough, he said, and he thought he should contain his grief.

That changed after he drove to New York the week after Sept. 11. He saw the spontaneous memorials to the firefighters in the streets and visited the firehouse of his son's unit -- Squad 18 -- where Manuel Mojica Jr.'s buddies hugged him and told him how much they loved his son.

"I guess this thing has me crazy, but I want the world to know I'm in pain," he said after he returned.

During the past year, though, he found that the more he talked about his son, the less talking seemed to help.

"The people who know me, they try not to mention it now," said Mojica, who granted this interview reluctantly.

Firefighters have telephoned him and visited him in Florida, which he says he appreciates. But the feeling of brotherhood, usually strong in the department, has diminished, he said, partly because firefighters are discouraged that the federal government has not caught Osama bin Laden or snuffed out the threat of al-Qaida.

"I'm not too happy with the way they handled things," Mojica said.

He does plan to attend some local events commemorating the attacks, including a candlelight vigil for his son and a meeting of New York City police officers Wednesday.

He does not plan, though, to go to the much larger memorial events in New York City. And Mojica, who a year ago insisted on staying in New York until he could view his son's battered body, has not been back since.

He wants to help his two young grandchildren, who still have not grasped what happened to their father. "I talk to them on the phone. They say, 'Daddy's resting,' " he said.

He wants to support his son's widow, Anna, who is "very depressed," Mojica said.

"She's very sick. She's lost a lot of weight."

But he said he needs more time living a normal life, playing softball in his league at Veterans Memorial Park in Spring Hill and driving his bus.

"When a couple of years go by, I'll go up and see them," he said of his son's family.

"I'll go up and see them and see my son's grave."

Coping in quiet ways

Early September for Joe and Terry Holland, even more than for most families of the victims, will always be heavy with emotion.

Ten days before the attacks, Joe's son, Joey Holland, and his wife had a son. The elder Holland will always be thankful his son lived to see the birth, but sad that the boy will grow up without a father.

The Spring Hill couple also feel for their son's widow, Kathy, who will never be able to celebrate her birthday, on Sept. 12, without grieving.

"It's a terrible time for her," Joe Holland said.

Like Mojica, the Hollands are grateful for the public support for the victims of the attacks and their families. When they visited the New York Mercantile Exchange this summer, the normally frantic pace slowed as brokers stopped working to acknowledge them -- even at the risk of losing huge sums of money.

"You know how it is when the president walks into the room and everyone says, 'The president's here.' That's the way we felt," Joe Holland said. "They came over and tapped me on the shoulder and told me what a great guy Joey was."

Also like Mojica, Joe Holland was overwhelmed with pride for his son, which in some ways makes the loss even more painful.

The younger Holland attended one of the most exclusive public high schools in the city and graduated from Manhattan College. At 32, he had established himself as a success with the commodities brokerage firm Carr Futures Inc.

"He was a rising star. He'd just been made vice president of the company," his father said.

Joey Holland normally worked two blocks away from the World Trade Center. On the morning of Sept. 11, though, he had gone to a meeting on the 92nd floor of Tower 1 -- the first to be hit and the second to collapse.

He and other Carr Futures employees were trapped in a large room and watched as the flames advanced toward them, according to a recent New York Times article.

When they heard about the attack, the Hollands drove to New York immediately. They initially hoped Joey might have just been lost and wandering around in a daze. But that hope dimmed when they saw the devastation at ground zero and evaporated when rescuers found his wedding ring and wallet a week after the attacks.

Since then, the Hollands have coped mostly in quiet ways. To honor their son, they planted a magnolia tree in their front yard. Joe Holland, 58, a retired New York firefighter, retired again -- this time from his job as a fire inspector in Citrus County -- to spend more time with his and Terry's children: Michele, 17, and Brian, 11.

"That was a mutual decision, me and my wife. She wanted me to watch my son a little better," he said.

The Hollands will also grieve more publicly. Last week, they left for New York to visit family and attend memorial services, though Terry Holland said such events bring her as much heartache as comfort.

"Every one I've been to has been hard," she said. "I don't particularly want to go myself, but my husband wants to go and I don't want him to be alone."

Leaning on others

Steve and Mary Rudzianis said their daughter, Joan De Meo, has relied on neighbors and close fiends since the attack.

Her husband, Martin De Meo, 47, served with a hazardous materials team in Queens. His unit responded immediately after one of the lieutenants saw the first plane hit.

"He was outside the station there smoking a cigarette," Steve Rudzianis said, "and he went right in and told the guys."

When they visited their daughter shortly after the attacks, they said, people stopped by continually, offering companionship and food.

"It was overwhelming," said Steve Rudzianis, 82.

In the months since, Mary Rudzianis said, her daughter has kept busy, taking care of her two teenage children, Nicholas and Kristin. Joan De Meo has also spent a lot of time with other widows of firefighters killed in the attacks. And, judging from a visit last summer, Mary Rudzianis said, her daughter's wounds are starting to heal.

"She said, 'It's getting better. I can walk by a picture of him without crying,' " Mary Rudzianis said.

Her grandchildren also seem to be coping.

Nicholas excels as a baseball player, partly because his father worked with him from the time he was a small child. Kristin is an outstanding student and viola player, her grandmother said.

But Mrs. Rudzianis also worries about the entire family. Her grandson has built a shrine in his bedroom of mementos that his father had given him and sometimes retreats there to study it and cry.

Kristin, she said, seldom talks about her father at all.

"She never cries," Mrs. Rudzianis said.

She also worries that some of the things people have done to comfort the family, especially the large payments from charities, have cheapened their loss.

"I don't like it," she said.

Steve Rudzianis' only objection to the payments and the many memorials for the firefighters is he fears they obscure what his son-in-law and the other firefighters actually did.

Martin De Meo, like Manuel Mojica Jr., entered Tower 1 and walked up the stairs as workers were walking down.

The firefighters stayed there even though they knew they could not fight the fire. They stayed even after the other tower collapsed, knowing that their tower would probably do likewise.

"Why did they stay? There's only one reason. To help more people," Rudzianis said.

"They really are heroes."

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