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Day of pain, eased by time

Bay area residents remember 9/11 -- then and now.

By JUSTIN GEORGE, LEONORA LaPETER and ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published September 12, 2006


photo
[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
AN EMOTIONAL EMBRACE: Mayor Pam Iorio hugs Mark Kijaz after a ceremony held by the Tampa Fire Department and the Tampa Police Department in honor of the firefighters, police officers and civilians who died in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Kijaz worked for a company in New York that provided security to companies in the World Trade Center. He saw the plane hit the south tower, and later participated in the cleanup at ground zero. He moved to Tampa in 2003.

 
[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Joseph Martin is the sexton at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tampa. He stayed with his routine Monday, performing the same duties in the same way he did on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
Janaya Wimberly, left, and Kierra Williams listen as Linda Mells, below, reads Everyday Heroes at the Fillmore Center's Head Start Center program in St. Petersburg.

Dispatch radios squawk a few words reminding local police and firefighters of the date. Five years, it has been.

It is Monday, Sept. 11, and the day's significance is inescapable. And yet, oddly, escapable. At Tampa International Airport, passengers pause before boarding commercial flights, but then, they take their seats. Air Force Sgt. Mike Hysell, 36, awakens Monday with Sept. 11 on his mind. But before he knows it, he is donning fatigues, running through physical training, grabbing a Quarter Pounder at McDonald's. "A typical day," he says. Somehow, in five years, it has happened. Days, visible once more through the light fog of terrible memories, can still feel typical.

'He gave his life' 

Gerd Schuch, a St. Petersburg firefighter, has the day off.

But he still gets up at 7:30 a.m. and drives to a fire station with his wife, carrying a bouquet of flowers.

Their hope: Get people to remember what happened five years ago.

His wife Maureen's second cousin, 28-year-old Thomas Casoria, was last seen near the 26th floor of the south tower, helping to carry someone in a wheelchair down the stairs.

Schuch, 40, still remembers driving to the site after the attacks and digging through the rubble.

Some memories don't fade.

So he spends Monday telling others how a family member and New York City firefighter died.

He tells them how firefighters risk their lives, how Casoria went into a burning building and didn't come down.

"He was a firefighter, too" Schuch says. "He gave his life."

Everyday heroes 

Preschoolers gather around Linda Mells. At age 4, they are too young to remember the heroes who emerged from the rubble of terrorist attacks.

Mells, 54, reads them a story in a classroom at the Fillmore Head Start Center on 12th Street S in St. Petersburg. They hear about a firefighter who helps a parrot; a teacher who helps a girl with a broken skate; a pet store owner who saves a starving kitten.

Mells turns to a picture of a policewoman directing traffic. She asks, "And what do police do?"

"They shoot people," yells a boy in a striped shirt.

"They take people to jail," yells a girl in a pink dress.

"They do drugs," yells another.

Mells knows she has work to do.

"Do police ever do things that are nice?" she asks.

"NOOOO," they yell in unison.

Disturbed, she presses on.

"Police help direct traffic so you can be safe," she says. "Police are helpers, and if you ever get lost, they help you find your parents. That makes police helpers and helpers are heroes."

Where stability is found 

Inside Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown Tampa, sexton Joseph Martin, 61, empties trash. He checks the candles and the holy water. It's the same routine he followed on Sept. 11, 2001, before the first airplane had exploded into the World Trade Center.

Across the street, Charles Saunders, 63, leans on a pole holding up a "9/11 Cover-up" banner in front of the old Federal Courthouse. His mind teeters with conspiracy theories. He thinks the U.S. government orchestrated the attacks, to set a stage for the Iraq war.

"Bush and Cheney are warmongers," he says.

Everything changed on 9/11, he says.

Not much changed inside the century-old church, Martin says. Many parishioners seek its stability in troubling times. "To tell you the truth, it's another day," Martin says.

A duty they never wanted 

Tampa Fire Rescue Lt. Roger Picard holds the end of a tan leash. He stands outside the Tampa Police Department at a ceremony honoring fallen first responders. At the end of the leash is Jessie, a 10-year-old search-and-rescue Labrador who will retire next year.

For seven straight days, Picard and Jessie searched the trade center debris. Their team found 10 dead police officers and firefighters.

"It seemed like it was a movie," Picard says. "Like I'd wake up in the morning and it would all be gone."

But the memories linger five years later.

He talks about the faces of grim firefighters lighting up when Jessie stepped off a bus near ground zero. How he cheered up a fireman by telling him how he taught Jessie to climb ladders.

"We brought hope to every mission," Picard says.

Movie stirs up fresh pain 

In Tampa, two men walk up to the AMC movie theater counter at the WestShore Plaza mall and scan the matinee choices.

They pick World Trade Center.

"That's the only one that's playing right now," Ramon Espitia, 24, says.

He is a hotel maintenance worker with the day off. His friend, Jhonier Restrepo, 21, has joined him.

Five years ago, he was in New York City delivering furniture for Macy's. He remembers being stuck in traffic on 40th Street near Times Square when the planes hit the towers.

Will the movie bring back memories?

"Yeah, maybe."

He pauses.

"Of course."

No more illusions of safety 

Som Sowmyan has just gotten off a flight from Newark to Tampa, carrying with him words born of that day five years ago.

"The terrorists win every time you decide not to travel," he says.

He finds an empty table in the TIA terminal and waits for a colleague on a later flight. He scans the headlines on his laptop to make sure everything is okay, learning of Sept. 11 memorials across the nation.

He reads about children of World Trade Center victims. He stops at the thought that they are now old enough to have questions.

Already, he has called his wife to let her know that his plane landed safely, because that is what people do, five years later.

He had felt uneasy climbing aboard the Continental flight from Newark.

"But I have to get paid," says Sowmyan, a financial consultant.

"You have to carry on."

He wishes he could forget 

Every time Greg Checki turns on the TV, there it is: old video of the plane crashing into the tower, the flames, the chaos that followed.

He seeks refuge from it all.

So he sits through a three-hour seminar on capital punishment at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

He feels relieved not to hear about Sept. 11.

"You get bombarded everywhere else," he says.

Checki, a senior in political science, was 17 years old and asleep at his home in Tampa five years ago when his mother woke him up and told him to watch the TV.

"I remember being pretty horrified, and I don't want to go back to square one again," he says.

"I prefer to forget most parts of that day. I'm going to take a broad stroke with a brush and say a lot of people my age would like to forget."

 

[Last modified September 12, 2006, 05:49:35]


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