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9/11 anniversary: Different fates for Loyola classmates

Michael Fitz-Patrick was on the 61st floor of Two World Trade Center, training to be a broker. A new father at 28, he was switching careers with a goal of spending more time at home.

Daniel McNeal, 29, was also in the south tower that sunny Tuesday morning. He and Fitz-Patrick had been classmates at Loyola Blakefield high school in Towson, Class of 1990. McNeal, an ambitious financial analyst who had decorated his boyhood bedroom with photographs of Ronald Reagan, worked up on the building's 104th floor.

Then terrorist hijackers turned two jetliners into missiles and brought down the twin towers. Fitz-Patrick made it out just 15 minutes before the south tower collapsed.

Not so McNeal. He went down with the tower, one of more than 2,750 people killed that day in Lower Manhattan.

Ten years after 9/11, the coordinated attacks that crashed planes in New York, Northern Virginia and Shanksville, Pa., have left an enduring, complicated legacy. The United States has spent the past decade fighting costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Life for average Americans has changed, too, from tighter airport security to the newfound sense of national vulnerability.

But the victims and their relatives occupy a space all their own. Fitz-Patrick, his family and McNeal's survivors say their lives remain indelibly altered — how could they not be? — in ways that are wrenchingly sad and yet, even for the McNeals, life-affirming and inspiring.

Fitz-Patrick says he thinks about the attacks every day. When he focuses on his terrifying stairwell descent, he can still see the pile of abandoned women's dress shoes.

Ask him how life has changed, and he stresses one word: family. At 38, he says, he strives to put his wife, Mary Beth, and their children first. Though he hardly claims to be perfect on that score, he's such a regular at sports practices and school events that other parents jokingly ask whether he has a job.

Two years ago, the Fitz-Patricks' fourth child was born, a girl named Kirsten. She arrived more than a week early — on Sept. 11. At the hospital, a friend told him, "God gave you the day back."

For the McNeals, the grief lingers like a storm cloud. Dan's mother, Kitty, pauses often at the portrait of her only son, displayed prominently in the family's split-level Towson home. His pursed smile and narrowed gaze seem to promise a big future on Wall Street, and in life.

She still replays the 21-second message he left on the home answering machine that day, just to hear his voice.

The McNeals determined early on to spread Dan's memory widely, launching an annual memorial golf outing to raise money for a scholarship. Each year an award goes to a Loyola senior who exemplifies the Jesuit ethos: "A true man for others."

And when McNeal's sister — who was married 18 days after her brother's death — gave birth to a son in 2002, she and her husband chose a name that seemed perfect: Daniel.

Initial confusion

Michael Fitz-Patrick was on the phone with his wife, describing the sweeping view of New York City, when the first plane hit the north tower, One World Trade Center. It sounded as if someone had knocked over a file cabinet in a nearby office. It was 8:46 a.m.

Fitz-Patrick had left Baltimore two days earlier for a three-week training course at the investment bank Morgan Stanley. After a roller coaster ride in the boom-to-bust dot-com economy, he had decided to go work with his father as a broker at Greenspring Station.

He and Mary Beth had started a family. Their first-born, Mary Kate, was almost 2 years old. He wanted a job that would pay well but have flexible hours.

Now, on his first full day of training, Fitz-Patrick called home to Hunt Valley after a lesson on technical analysis to say good morning.

The loud thump was followed by debris falling from the north tower. To him, it looked like a ticker-tape parade. Something's wrong, he told his wife. He had to go. Turn on the television.

As he stared out the window, he saw what appeared to be a person going out a window. He turned to the man beside him. Did you see that? he asked. The man ran off without replying.

Then someone on the 61st floor announced an evacuation. Fitz-Patrick joined a throng that began walking slowly, methodically, down the stairs in Two World Trade Center.

At some point he heard a voice announce that the building was secure and people could go back to their offices. Some did. He kept going, focused on his wife and daughter. He felt relief that his life insurance was up to date.

A last call home

Forty-three floors up, Dan McNeal had also picked up the phone to call home.

He was about a year into a job as a financial analyst with the investment firm Sandler O'Neill + Partners. After Loyola, he went to Boston College, graduating magna cum laude. In 2000, he received his MBA at Georgetown University.

His sister, Kathleen Sheeler, describes Dan as the embodiment of Alex P. Keaton, the buttoned-down son from the TV series "Family Ties." He favored a suit and tie. He idolized Reagan and Republican values, so much so that he led a voter registration drive while a senior at Loyola.

His mother describes him as sincere, religious, honorable — and bright. "Very bright," she says. A natural leader, he served as president of his class at Loyola for six years, she says, and was elected student government president his final year.

McNeal and Fitz-Patrick weren't best buddies at Loyola, but they were friends. Fitz-Patrick says McNeal got along well with students across the jock-to-bookworm spectrum. "Phenomenal," he calls him.

McNeal called home around 9 a.m., minutes after the first plane slammed into the north tower. He first tried his mother in Towson. She was walking the dog, so he left a message.

"The crash was over in Tower One," he said. "Our building's filling up with smoke right now, sort of in the south. But I guess our building's secured now, is what they're saying. But I'm fine, and just probably going to be getting the heck out of Dodge for a few minutes.

"I'll try to get in touch with Dad now. Take care."

Next he called his sister, but again got voice mail. Then he called his father, Michael, who was in hospice care with a pulmonary illness. His father answered. But they were soon interrupted. Through tears, Kitty McNeal relates what happened next:

"Mike looked up on the TV and saw the plane hit the tower. He watched it happen."

"And then lost the connection," her daughter says.

This was the moment the second plane hit the south tower, the one Fitz-Patrick and McNeal were in. It was 9:03 a.m. The impact hammered the building between the 77th and 85th floors, trapping people on the floors above.

Narrow escape

Fitz-Patrick had made it downstairs to the 44th floor by the time the second plane hit. The building shuddered. A barrel-chested man, he was knocked to the side. Some people fell down.

"I'm not being dramatic here when I say I thought I was going to die," he says. "I mean, I didn't think I was getting out of there."

No one in the stairwell knew what was happening. Rumors spread that a news helicopter had hit the first tower. Or maybe it was a Cessna. Whatever it was, Fitz-Patrick figured it was a terrible accident.

The descent seemed to take forever. No one pushed, though. Every few minutes, firefighters raced past them up the stairs. Fitz-Patrick could smell jet fuel, and he spotted a crack in the wall. Women shook off their high heels.

Eventually, Fitz-Patrick made it down and out of the tower, emerging into a war zone littered with the body parts of those who'd jumped or fallen. He kept moving.

It was only minutes later that he turned around to see Two World Trade Center — his tower, McNeal's tower — collapse. At a pay phone, he pulled a calling card from his wallet. On the third try, he made it through to his anxiety-ridden family back in Baltimore: He was alive.

Tangible reminders

Nine days after the attack, Fitz-Patrick attended Dan McNeal's funeral at the Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity in Timonium.

McNeal's body was among the first recovered from the rubble. His mother has a framed picture of her son lying in his casket.

The family received his wallet. It sits on a table in his bedroom, filled with its mundane contents from that day — a New York subway card, receipts, a Citibank credit card that expired in 2002, an engagement picture of his sister and Chris Sheeler, the man she married.

Near the wallet sit the glasses McNeal wore that day. Grasping the gold-rimmed pair, his mother marvels that the right lens stayed intact during the collapse.

The glass is caked in dirt and dust. Kitty McNeal has no intention of ever wiping it clean.

'The possibilities were endless'

For Fitz-Patrick, the early days were rough. He didn't feel survivor's guilt, exactly, but something similar. He kept thinking about Dan McNeal.

"Perspective-wise, it's a difficult thing to comprehend," he said. "He's in there. I'm in there. Why him and not me? And it's upsetting."

Counseling sessions eased his anguish, as did his family's support. The nightmares ended, mostly.

For the McNeals, it didn't take long to see exactly how big a hole Dan's death had left. Kathleen got married that Sept. 29, as scheduled. But of course her brother wasn't there to walk her down the aisle in place of their ailing father.

It was the first of many absences.

"I feel like I'm an only child," Kathleen says. "My brother was supposed to be here for me, always, way after Mom and Dad were gone." Her father died three months after 9/11.

When she and Chris had a son in 2002, it seemed fitting to name him after her brother. She finds it uncanny how much the boy's features and build resemble her brother's.

She mourns all the things her brother never got to do or become.

"The possibilities were endless," she says.

Fitz-Patrick's wife, Mary Beth, bumps into Kathleen occasionally at Target. They know each other from school days. Mary Beth feels sad for her and the whole McNeal family. She can't help feeling that her own burgeoning brood has offered a glimpse of the family Dan McNeal might have had.

"There's that uncomfortableness," Mary Beth says. "'Oh, you have another baby!' 'Yeah, I do. ...'"

New priorities

During the first few anniversaries, Michael Fitz-Patrick didn't attempt to avoid the news coverage. Exactly the opposite: He would take the day off and glue his eyes to CNN.

Why purposely relive the trauma? He felt he owed it to the families of the dead. And as he watched, he realized he was learning details of the attack that he never knew because he was in the middle of it.

As much as anything, he found the quiet immersion good for his psyche.

"It was part of my therapy," he says.

This year, he says, he'll probably still watch, though not as intensely as he once did.

McNeal's sister watches 9/11 coverage, too, painful as it is.

"I know it's impossible, I know it sounds crazy," she says, "but I watch hoping I can see a glimpse of him somewhere in the crowd."

Both families made scrapbooks packed with articles and artifacts — such as Fitz-Patrick's World Trade Center ID card. Partly it was for the adults, so they would always remember the details. But the adults also want to teach their children about the events that wrought such profound changes in their families.

Nine-year-old Danny Sheeler understands a lot more now about the attacks. The Sheelers began by explaining that his Uncle Danny died when airplanes crashed into the towers. Later they said "bad people" did it on purpose. Eventually they spoke the name Osama bin Laden. And when Navy SEALS killed bin Laden in May, the boy absorbed the news from his mother.

Kathleen says she does her best to answer his questions. The hardest are variations of "Why?"

She sometimes pulls out the scrapbook at her Timonium home and leafs through it with her children. Besides Danny, she and her husband have two girls, McKenzie, 61/2, and Reese, 41/2. She wants them all to know the uncle they never met.

"I'm sad," she said. "But 10 years later, we laugh a lot. We tell funny stories and say, 'If Danny would have been here, this is how he would have reacted,' and we all laugh."

The Fitz-Patricks openly discuss 9/11 at home. They encourage the curiosity of their oldest two, Mary Kate, 11, and Garrett, who's 8. The kids will ask their dad, What was it like? Mary Kate and her father are country music fans, and when the radio plays a song with 9/11 lyrics, she cranks it up.

Fitz-Patrick says he tells the children, "It's always important to understand there's good and there's evil. What we saw that day was evil. And you also saw some good."

The Fitz-Patricks talk about Dan McNeal, too, especially around the anniversary. When Mary Kate came home after the first day of sixth grade this month, she said she wanted to get involved in student government — "like Dan was."

Fitz-Patrick still works with his father, now for UBS. Surviving 9/11 validated his quest to spend more time with his family.

"It doesn't mean I'm not successful," he said, but money isn't his main motivator. "I'm happy to sit here and have dinner at 6 o'clock at night instead of being at the office," he says.

He has hung a reminder on the wall of that office — a piece of art that includes the quotation: "Everything changed the day he figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in life."

Two years ago, he and Mary Beth gave no thought to the possibility that their fourth child might be a 9/11 baby. But Kirsten's early arrival has recast the anniversary for them.

"It's her birthday now. I'm not going to be as glum, I don't think," he said. "There will always be a sadness, but Kirsten's sort of changed that around."

Keeping the memory alive

Kitty McNeal, now in her mid-70s, goes to Mass on Sept. 11 and visits her son's grave. Like her daughter and son-in-law, she has traveled to New York a couple times for the memorial ceremony at Ground Zero.

She has difficulty discussing her son's death. The tears come quickly. But she is clearly proud of the annual golf outing and the Loyola scholarship that bear her son's name. The $250,000 endowment exceeds the original goal. It's also important to her that Georgetown's McDonough School of Business named a room for him.

As much as she clings to the tangible reminders — the glasses, the answering machine message, the portrait — she wants people to know what kind of person her son was.

"Through our friends and relatives, we've kept everything alive," she says.

She leaves open the possibility that the attacks that stole the life of her son and so many others will somehow lead to some good.

"Hopefully," she says, "we'll come out a better people."

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

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