Relatives of Marylanders killed on Sept. 11 reflect on bin Laden's death

Kathryn McNeal didn't believe the news scroll.

The Ruxton resident didn't pay too much attention during the 11 p.m. news when she heard that President Barack Obama would give an important announcement. She assumed it would be about Libya or the latest unrest in Arab countries.

Then she read the words that Osama bin Laden was dead — bin Laden, the man who had orchestrated the World Trade Center attacks that killed her 29-year-old son, Daniel McNeal, nearly a decade ago.

"I thought this could not happen, not in my lifetime," McNeal recalled Monday.

Since the news of bin Laden's death broke late Sunday, McNeal and others who lost loved ones in New York, at the Pentagon and on the hijacked flights have wrestled with complex emotions. They feel relief that justice was served, but it's coupled with painful reflection on lives lost and worries about violence to come.

"You don't bring closure to anything like this," McNeal said. Still, "it makes our nation proud that we are a strong people. When we're united, we can do anything, and we can do the impossible."

At Ben Wainio's Catonsville home, the phones started ringing with calls from journalists even before Obama's announcement.

His daughter, Honor Elizabeth Wainio, was 27 when she died in the crash of United Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa. She and McNeal were among 63 people with Maryland ties who were killed in the terrorist attacks.

"This just brings it all back," Wainio said.

On Monday, the father hoped that bin Laden's death would not be politicized. "We need to give credit to military forces and not make it a political football."

He also worried about images of Americans celebrating — just the way some in the Middle East rejoiced after the World Trade Center attacks, he said. "Does that make us any different than them?" he asked. "I think that just adds fuel to the fire."

Those scenes also troubled John Milton Wesley, whose fiancee, Sara Clark, died aboard the flight that crashed into the Pentagon.

Wesley, a Columbia resident, cringed at images of Americans dancing in celebration when so many of their fellow citizens remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks. He imagined the loss that bin Laden's children must feel. He thought, as always, of the kind, strong woman he was set to marry.

"I'm a believer," he said, alluding to his religious faith. "And it's a very tough thing to accept that we have such a sense of hatred in the world."

Clark, a sixth-grade teacher in Washington, had boarded the flight to California with one of her students, who was slated to participate in a National Geographic event that would eventually net computers for the whole class. Wesley probably would have been on the flight, but Clark insisted that he stay in Baltimore to help an HBO crew scout locations for "The Wire" (he worked for the city housing authority at the time).

Wesley has kept the house he shared with Clark much the same, with the wallpaper she picked and the garden arranged the way she liked it. He still drives the blue 1991 Mazda she left behind. He thinks of her every day and feels the emptiness.

"How do you deal with that?" said Wesley, now a Maryland Transit Administration spokesman. "Somebody walking out the door one day and never coming back."

A 'first step'

As a Howard County prosecutor, Devora Wolk Pontell thinks of justice almost every day. As a widow who lost her husband in the Pentagon attack, she wondered when she would ever find her own.

Pontell married her husband, Darin, six months before the Navy lieutenant was killed at age 26. The couple met as sixth-graders at Clarksville Middle School and attended Atholton High School together.

Bin Laden's death has triggered a sadness, a reopening of old wounds, she said. "But there's a good feeling, too — a sense of pride that we had such dedication," she added, echoing Wesley's feelings about the decade-long search and military operation targeting bin Laden.

Others also spoke of long-brewing justice.

Sylvia Hess of Laurel could not pull together words to describe her father, Max Beilke, a retired Army sergeant who was killed at the Pentagon.

But she had no trouble expressing her feelings about bin Laden. "I'm glad he's dead," she said. "He should have been dumped at sea rather than buried."

Daniel McNeal's sister, Kathleen Sheeler, felt joy at the news — "probably as much joy to me, as I've had in the last couple of years."

"One thing that is closure for me is that my brother's murderer has been brought to justice," she said.

As Sheeler watched young Americans celebrate in Times Square and in front of the White House, she thought of how they grew up in a world devoid of secure feelings. Maybe bin Laden's death would change that.

"I went to bed feeling more secure, the security I felt maybe on September 10, 2001," she said. "I was kind of thinking I would wake up this morning and feel the unity we felt on September 12 as a country."

Sheeler hoped this would be the "first step toward bringing the country back together."

Nothing changed

Thomas P. Heidenberger, a US Airways pilot, and his wife Michele, an American Airlines flight attendant, took turns working so someone was always home with their two kids. Sept. 11 was her day to fly. She checked in from the plane that morning, and it was the last time he ever spoke to her — Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon soon after takeoff from Washington Dulles International Airport.

Heidenberger believed President George W. Bush when he said, "We'll get him." But when he got word that bin Laden was dead, he said it changed nothing.

"I don't mean to make light or take anything away from what's transpired, but it doesn't bring my wife back." said Heidenberger, who was married for 30 years. "I think about Michele every day. I don't think about Osama bin Laden every day. If you fixate on something, it will inhibit you or prevent you from moving on."

Instead, he's focused on finishing the job raising their two children, who were 14 and 20 when their mother was killed.

Heidenberger, now retired, went back to flying a shuttle between Washington and New York two weeks after the terrorist attacks. He kept at it even though he could see the rubble at the Pentagon and the smoke still rising from Ground Zero.

He also helped raise money for the Pentagon memorial; he hopes it offers comfort to other 9/11 families and other Americans.

"It was always my wife's advice to 'get on with it,' and not spend time stewing on something that happened five minutes, five days or five years ago," Heidenberger said.

"Will this be a meaningful day for me? Truthfully, no," he said. "I can't say it'll just be another day. It'll close a chapter in the book. ... And now that it's behind us, let's hope as a country we can stay united and move forward and address some critical issues for my generation and for my grandson."

A chance to remember

Ben Wainio said calls from the news media are sometimes difficult. But the magnitude of the tragedy means "I get a chance to talk about my daughter and how lovely she was."

Honor, who went by the nickname Lizz, was a Towson University graduate. She had called her stepmother, Esther Heymann, from Flight 93 that day and spoke with her for 11 minutes.

"Closure is a word we hate," Heymann said through tears.

Heymann felt some of the sense of justice described by others, but she doesn't expect bin Laden's death to end anything. "There will always be terrorists," she said. "It's part of the ugliness of humanity."

She has opted to dwell on actions like those of the passengers and crew on Flight 93, who helped to bring down the airplane before it could crash into another building.

Her family has channeled all the emotion into raising funds to build the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville. Her stepdaughter worked as a district manager for Discovery Communications stores, and the company helped start a scholarship at Towson University. The family holds an annual fundraiser at the Ropewalk Tavern in Federal Hill.

"It's always the best of humanity that comes out of these things," Heymann said.

On Monday morning, she and her husband planned to turn off the television and take a walk.

"That's what we've done for years," Heymann said. "To be out with nature and be with Elizabeth's spirit, and try to be centered."

Baltimore Sun reporters Julie Bykowicz, Meredith Cohn and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

daviwalker@baltsun.com

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