Facing a world without CeeCee
For a Florida family, the events that shook the nation were very personal and would be felt long beyond one infamous day.
By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published September 7, 2006
The weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, were a particularly light-hearted time for CeeCee Lyles and the five people closest to her.
"Maybe it's always this way when your heart breaks into a million pieces," says her aunt, Carrie Ross. "Maybe, by comparison, life seems pain free. But it really was a particularly happy time for us."
Lyles' mom, Shirley Adderly, remembers a silly, giggly call from her daughter and her two kids a few days before the attacks. Ross remembers a gushing card in the mail. CeeCee's husband, Lorne Lyles, talks about what fun they had on their Indiana vacation, the preceding week. For her oldest son, Jerome Smith, it was the family's excitement over his turning 16 and passing his driving test on Sept. 8. And, CeeCee's youngest son, Jevon, then 6, likes to tell about learning to ride a two-wheeler in early September, and "having such fun riding along with my mom."
CeeCee, 33, summed up this happy period in a note to her aunt a week before 9/11: "I appreciate so much how you and mom raised me. I am so thankful for my life and so proud of it."
She and Lorne were newlyweds who had combined their families - her two boys and his two. When they weren't working, it was family time. The six of them cleaned the house together, went on outings together and frequent weekend trips to theme parks. They also traveled a lot to their hometown of Fort Pierce to be with family.
"Our CeeCee was the center of our fun - our glue," says Ross, who lives in Fort Pierce.
On Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001, CeeCee was at home, cooking dinner with Lorne and the four boys in their Fort Myers townhouse, when she sat down at the computer and dashed off a message to her aunt.
"I love my work," she wrote.
"Wish you had a job where you could spend more time with the boys," her aunt wrote back.
"Don't worry. Lorne and I have it worked out," CeeCee responded, explaining that she got in a lot of quality time with the boys.
The next afternoon, Sept. 10, she flew to Newark, spent the night in an apartment she shared with other United Airlines flight attendants and took a dawn shuttle to the airport to work Flight 93. She was assigned to the back of the Boeing 757.
The plane, scheduled to leave at 8 a.m., took off 42 minutes late because of backups on the runway. At 9:24 a.m., a flight dispatcher radioed the pilot that two planes had hit the World Trade Center.
"Beware any cockpit intrusion," he said.
Two minutes later, hijackers took over Flight 93.
The last communication from the plane, which went down in a field in western Pennsylvania, was a cell-phone call from CeeCee to Lorne at their townhouse.
"We're being hijacked," he remembers she said, before telling him that she and others were planning to take the plane back.
They prayed and asked God to bring her home safely.
After that, the phone went dead. It was a few minutes after 10 a.m.
Lorne called his supervisor at the Fort Myers Police Department and asked him to report the hijacking. The supervisor, who was watching one tragedy after another unfold on national TV, immediately sent the chaplain and victim's advocate to the Lyles' house.
"Lorne was so afraid something had happened to CeeCee he wouldn't allow me to turn the TV on to find out," says Becky Scheall, the victim's advocate.
But they learned when the phone rang around noon.
Scheall recalls overhearing a United official say to Lorne: "Flight 93 went down. We have confirmed CeeCee Lyles was aboard. There are no survivors."
"It was horrible, just horrible," says Scheall. "For the rest of my life, I will never forget Lorne's screams."
An hour later, Jevon, 6, arrived home from school in a squad car.
"I thought our house had been robbed," Jevon says.
He went into his older brother's bedroom where Lorne and Jerome, 16, were. Tears were streaming down Lorne's face and Jerome was sobbing and groaning.
"Your mom has passed away," Lorne whispered to Jevon.
"I think I was too little to really get it," says Jevon. "I thought she was coming back."
By midafternoon, CeeCee's mom and aunt arrived at the townhouse from Fort Pierce, and the five people closest to CeeCee Lyles wept together.
After that, it would only be at the official memorials that they would gather together in grief, and even that stopped after a few years.
"They were a great, close family," says Scheall. "But CeeCee's murder tore them apart. They each had to grieve in their own solitary ways."
Five years ago, this typically atypical family - founded on second marriages, second careers and second chances - got swept up in a national calamity. But for the Lyles family what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, was also shockingly simple - a disaster of very human proportions, recognizable to anyone who has felt the heart torn from a family.
Recognizable, too, are the paths of their grief. They would pull apart, but as the years passed, they would slowly, tentatively draw back together again.
Lorne quit work. The boys were scattered among various family members. Jevon prayed every night for his mother to come back and felt betrayed that she didn't. Jerome wandered from house to house, from one part of the family to another, trying to find the feeling of safety he had felt with his mother. CeeCee's mother and aunt, who had always been the joyful matriarchs of the family, fell into their own private bouts with sorrow.
"On that day, five years ago, we each began a separate journey," says CeeCee's mother.Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at email@example.com
ABOUT THIS STORY
This story will be told in five chapters over the next four days. The subsequent chapters will be found inside the A section.
Tomorrow: The helper becomes helpless.