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Lost lives, lost lifelines

Like hundreds of other immigrants who died in the World Trade Center, Keith Broomfield supported relatives in his homeland. Now a family in Jamaica wonders how it will survive.

By STEPHEN BUCKLEY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 28, 2001


SPANISH TOWN, Jamaica -- The lane is invisible from the street, and so are the people who live here.

The dusty road slices through the neighborhood to a home with no indoor plumbing, no telephone, no refrigerator. Jury-rigged power lines bring pirated electricity. The front yard is a dump choked with tin cans, plastic bottles, broken plates, disintegrating food. When the rains come, the odor of wet dust and rotting garbage is smothering.

This is where Keith Broomfield's youngest children live. This is where he was from, until he moved to that immigrant's dreamland, New York City.

There he landed work that paid him 10 times what the average person makes in Jamaica. He had a Nissan Maxima and a cramped but cozy apartment on a maple-lined street in Brooklyn.

A couple of times a year he shipped enormous barrels of goods back to his family in Jamaica: rice, beans, sugar, flour, oil, cans of corned beef. Jeans, shorts, dresses, skirts, blouses, shoes, underwear. Even cell phones.

Sometimes he sent bonus packages, once a 27-inch TV. This year he planned to send his 11-year-old son his first bicycle.

He sent regular remittances -- $40, $150, $300 -- whatever he could spare on the $23,400 he took home in one of the world's most expensive cities. He paid for school fees, medical checkups, household bills, whatever the family back home needed.

He helped sustain children, grandchildren, siblings -- nearly two dozen people in all. More than the barrels, more than the dollars, he provided his children with the thing they most needed to survive: hope.

Hope that one day they, too, could live in a home with a telephone and a refrigerator. Hope that hard work and honest living could help them push free of the muddy squalor and misery of 33 Old Harbour Road.

They took his support and inspiration for granted; they thought they could count on him forever. What they didn't count on was Sept. 11.

The same nightmare scenario repeated itself across New York City as hundreds of immigrant families lost moms and dads and brothers and sisters in the World Trade Center.

Their work as janitors, dishwashers and security guards had supported loved ones in America and relatives in their homelands. Every year they sent home what added up to millions of dollars to South Africa and El Salvador, to Peru and Pakistan, to Jamaica.

A lot of Keith Broomfields died Sept. 11.

The second-born of eight in a home without a father, Keith grew up taking care of his younger brothers and sisters. He started having children of his own 27 years ago.

To support them, he did welding and construction work. For extra money, he would come to the United States and Canada and do six or eight weeks of farm labor a year.

In the late 1980s, he decided to stay. He moved to Queens, where most Jamaicans in New York live, and started life anew. Like millions of immigrants who arrive here every year, he came with an empty wallet and a head full of dreams.

He learned to drive. He learned to fix cars. He met a woman.

"I was at a party, and he walked in, and it was like nobody else was there," said his fiancee, Jennifer Morrison. "He didn't just walk in the room; he floated in."

He made his priorities clear: He had come to America for his children. He planned to build them a house and to apply for them to come join him. Everywhere he went, he told people about his little ones in Jamaica -- Marlon, the wild one with the sense of humor; Annetta, the quietly intelligent one; Kayon, the girl footballer who dreamed of growing up to be a bank manager. And so on.

He did a bit of everything those first years in New York. He picked apples upstate, fixed cars, parked cars. He ferried medicines in the pharmacy of a Manhattan hospital.

After 1991, he never went back to Jamaica. He told his children he would rather send them the money he would spend on plane fare.

Some months he couldn't afford to send them anything, and he would lie in bed and weep.

"I would ask him what was wrong," his mother Isoline Broomfield recalled, "and he would say, "Mama, I'm not doing what I want to do for them. That's why I came here, Mama. To do for them.' "

Five years ago, the year he became a naturalized American, he began doing sporadic labor for Advent Industrial Corp., which worked out of 1 World Trade Center.

They hired him for odd jobs, using his skills as a welder, mechanic, painter, carpenter and mason. Then he started working two or three days a week. In July, he started full time.

He was known for being neat and prompt, quick to help, slow to anger. He never cursed and was so straitlaced that his boss assumed he was a Christian. (He was not a religious man.)

Advent Industrial, which designs and installs broadcast transmitters for New York television networks, did its work on the 110th floor. That gave Keith glorious views of the city. He would stand on the roof, stretch out his tall, muscular frame and shout, like Muhammad Ali, "I am the king of the world!"

On Sept. 11, when his relatives learned that Keith was missing, they spent hours watching that roof implode on TV, again and again. Every time his children saw it, they would ask if their daddy was really in that building.

After eight days, police identified him by the 12-inch scar on his left leg. At his memorial service in New York, his friends from all over the World Trade Center showed up -- elevator workers, technicians, construction workers. About 180 people in all.

"His mother told me that her one regret was that she never had the money to give him a really good education," said Michael Christatos, president of Advent Industrial. "I told her that whatever he lacked in schooling, he made up in heart and kindness."

Here in Jamaica, there was no memorial service; his family didn't have the money to hold one.

Six weeks later, a mournful weariness envelops the tidy three-room wooden house where Keith's youngest children live. The neighborhood seems in perpetual grieving: Hobbled dogs with sickly sores line the dirt lane alongside the mosquitoes that hover around pools of fetid water. Young men hang out on plastic chairs at sunset, smoking marijuana.

The neighborhood is a microcosm of Jamaica's woes -- random, violent crime; unemployment that has rocketed to 15 percent; an anemic economy that has shuttered factories and left millions wondering where their next meal will come from.

One of Keith's brothers, Michael Broomfield, noticed that the children aren't eating much. Grief may play a part, but so does poverty: The family apparently cannot afford to eat more than one full meal a day now.

Michael, a tall, fit man who looks a decade younger than his 47 years, said his nieces and nephews have started asking him for money with more urgency and frequency than before.

Adrian is 11, the youngest of Keith's children in Jamaica. He followed Michael down the lane to a grocery kiosk, waited, then grabbed Michael as he walked to his car.

"Can I have a 50?" he whispered in Michael's ear. Fifty Jamaican dollars is a little more than one American dollar.

Michael did not respond. For him, such a small amount is a sacrifice. After 11 years as a corrections officer, a labor dispute has left him without work for 22 months.

He toils as an unlicensed taxi driver at night, but bills remain unpaid; he's already nine months behind on his car payments.

Before driving off, Michael beckoned the boy, whose serious brown eyes remained locked on his uncle. He handed Adrian a $50 Jamaican bill through the car window, and the boy raced off.

"They know that nobody else in the family has anything to give," Michael said later, more sad than annoyed. "The one thing about Keith was that Jennifer knew that if he had any money, she could depend on him to send it. And, now that has disappeared."

Jennifer Allen, the mother of Adrian and three of Keith's other children, makes undergarments for a living. A couple of times a month, she travels 12 traffic-choked miles east to Kingston to sell her wares. Sometimes she doesn't earn enough to make bus fare back to Spanish Town.

Before Keith's death, his older brother, Burnel Broomfield, took in a niece to help ease Allen's burden. He already had taken in seven of his stepdaughter's children after she had troubles with the law in England. In the end, he had to send the 15-year-old girl, Kayon, back home. He couldn't feed all the children.

The unstable economy has left Burnel to scramble for piecemeal labor, mostly as a van taxi driver and as a construction worker. In recent months, there were days when "I come into the street" -- he stuck out his hand -- "and beg my friends."

The reverberations of Keith's death stretch beyond his young children. Kevin, his 24-year-old son, hoped his dad would make good on his promise to help him pay for a car. How will he save enough to buy one now? Carol, Keith's 38-year-old sister, relied on her brother to send quality sheets and curtains for her haberdashery business. Who will send those things now?

"He was like my right hand and my left hand," she said.

The emotional effect of Keith's death unfolds in quiet, even invisible ways. On a recent afternoon, several children sat on the front porch with their mom and a couple of neighbors. Marlon, who is 25 and Keith's oldest son, noticed that Adrian was quiet for a long time. When others laughed at Marlon's goofy jokes, the boy remained serious.

Marlon grabbed him and gave him a playful hug.

"You thinking about Daddy?" he said. "Him dead and gone, you know. Him no coming back."

Kevin is haunted by a dream he had the afternoon of Sept. 11. In it his father approached him. Keith held out his arms to his son. He tried to explain why he had stayed away for so long. They wept and hugged.

A trilling cell phone ended the dream. One of Kevin's sisters was calling to say that their dad was missing.

In Jamaica, there is little talk of barrels that won't be coming any more. Instead there is talk of torn dreams.

"He taught us hard work, that we could make something better for ourselves," Marlon said. "He worked so that we wouldn't be out on the road begging anybody."

On Oct. 6, Kevin arrived in New York City to mourn his father's death up close. It was the first time he had flown.

Six relatives applied for visas to come to New York, but only three were granted: Kevin, his sister Natalie and an aunt, Keith's sister Marvalyn. Keith's 22-year-old-daughter, Annetta, spent $100 applying (in vain) for a passport and U.S. visa. It was money Keith had sent a few weeks before his death.

Kevin and Natalie helped Jennifer Morrison, Keith's fiancee, go through his things. They went to Pier 94 in midtown Manhattan to see whether the government would help the family. (They heard that minors left behind likely will get assistance, but Keith's adult children probably will not.)

They watched a lot of news. Sitting in the basement of their grandmother's apartment in Queens, they flipped channels only to find that the nation's anthrax-driven anxiety had captured the airwaves.

Kevin wore a striped red shirt and shorts set his father used to wear. Natalie, his 19-year-old sister, wore a yellow T-shirt and a striped pair of jeans her dad had shipped her.

The young man's bloodshot eyes bore evidence of his restless nights. Next to him on the couch, his sister hugged a teddy bear.

"It's like a nightmare that I'm hoping to wake up from," Natalie said. "But I never do."

The next day, Kevin wore a headband that said, "God Bless America," as he helped Morrison move out of the matchbox one-bedroom apartment she and Keith shared. Pictures of him were scattered around the dining room. A helium balloon from Keith ("I love you") floated over the dining table.

Those who loved Keith curse the timing of his death. He was 49. Life, in many ways, had started to come together for him. He had begun the lengthy application process to finally bring his children to live with him in America. He and Morrison planned to marry, waiting only for Keith to save enough to buy them a house.

"He said, "We can't get married until I can give you someplace nice to live,"' said Morrison, 32. "I told him it didn't matter to me. He said, "Well, it matters to me."'

And, of course, his family cannot understand why fate would steal him from them so soon after a steady job finally had given him -- and, by extension, them -- a sliver of financial breathing room.

His mother, Isoline Broomfield, said that she and Keith had started to collect goods for the annual holiday barrel.

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