Hit hard, a borough heals

On Staten Island, Wendy Pellegrino and landscaper Fred Ariemma tend to a Sept. 11 memorial for local residents called Angel's Circle. "I never dreamed in my lifetime that I'd be a keeper of a cemetery, but I am," Pellegrino says.
On Staten Island, Wendy Pellegrino and landscaper Fred Ariemma tend to a Sept. 11 memorial for local residents called Angel's Circle. "I never dreamed in my lifetime that I'd be a keeper of a cemetery, but I am," Pellegrino says. (Sun photo by Andre F. Chung)
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. - Busy with twin toddlers, a part-time job and a new pregnancy, Cheri Sparacio didn't know many people on Staten Island and still felt like a newcomer after several years of living here. Her husband, Tom, was the Islander; she was from Brooklyn.

But then 9/11 happened, and suddenly Cheri Sparacio had more in common with her neighbors than she or they ever would have wished. Tom, a currency trader, was killed in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center along with nearly 200 other Staten Island residents. These past two years, amid the shared grief that has swelled like a wave over the island, Sparacio has come to realize: This is home.

"It was really after this whole thing that Staten Island became very dear to me," she said. "It's really, really an amazing community."

It is a community forever changed by the terrorist attacks of two years ago today. The smallest of the five boroughs that make up New York City, Staten Island took an oversize hit: Of the 2,792 people killed in the World Trade Center attacks, 193 lived on Staten Island.

The toll for some neighborhoods and institutions is almost unimaginably steep: One church lost 28 members, one school 23 alumni. There are two ZIP code areas in Staten Island that each lost 36 residents; only two other postal zones, a section of Manhattan's Upper East Side and Hoboken, N.J., lost more residents at the trade center.

The usual six degrees of separation is far less here when it comes to 9/11.

"Every single person on Staten Island knows somebody who knows somebody," Alex Altshuler said on a recent morning as he rode the ferry to his job as a computer programmer at a hospital in Manhattan.

Beyond those who lost spouses, children, parents or siblings are those less directly affected: A man looking at pictures in a memorial space recognizes the woman he used to pay for using the copy machine at the pharmacy. A ferry worker slowly comes to realize that some familiar faces never returned to the 8:15 to Manhattan.

While Staten Island is no small town - 457,000 people live here - it retains the small town feel of its semirural past, particularly compared with New York's other, more urban boroughs. It is more homogeneous - about 80 percent white, compared with 35 percent overall for the city. There is a large Italian-American, Catholic population, and it's the only traditionally Republican borough.

It truly is an island, unconnected to Manhattan by bridge or tunnel, and feels a world apart with its acres of open space, winding streets and car-friendly nature. People say in all seriousness that they moved here for the parking. But Staten Island remains inextricably bound to Manhattan nonetheless, as 9/11 sadly demonstrated.

The greatest numbers of victims that day were trade center workers and firefighters, the two groups for whom the island had been particularly attractive. For the twin tower workers, Staten Island offered perhaps the area's most pleasant commute - a quiet 30 minutes by ferry in which to read, listen to the lapping water, enjoy the stirring view of the Statue of Liberty and feel sorry for those stuck in street traffic or squeezed into subway cars.

For firefighters, the island enables them to live in a suburban setting but still receive the hiring preference given to city residents. Today, many of those firefighters' names are on memorial street signs here: By one count, at least 86 of the 343 firefighters killed at the trade center - 25 percent of the toll - either lived on Staten Island or were originally from here.

In fact, so many firefighters and other uniformed personnel live on the island that they joke the actual fire department never gets to do anything.

"There are so many off-duty guys around all the time, by the time the fire department gets there, it's already taken care of," said Bill Spade, a firefighter who retired after he was injured helping in rescue efforts at the trade center. "But that's what it's like here. It's always someone helping someone out."

Neighbors help out

It is a common ethos here, and after the attacks there was no question that Staten Island would take care of Staten Island. With so many bereaved family members in their midst, groups and individuals stepped up to help in any way they could - with meals, rides, help putting up the Christmas tree, offers for a weekend away from it all. The island has also become something of a clearinghouse for information on everything 9/11 - from what was out there in the way of counseling, to scholarships available to children, to how to wade through the legal and financial morass that survivors suddenly had to confront.

"They should be remembered, and on Staten Island, they will be," vowed Dennis McKeon, who leads a committee at St. Clare's Roman Catholic Church that assists family members.

McKeon, who did not lose anyone in the attacks, has become something of a hero to those who did. His group, the World Trade Center Outreach Committee, is considered the most knowledgeable of those that emerged after the attacks throughout the New York area, and family members from other boroughs and New Jersey regularly attend the committee's meetings.

"He helped us with all our paperwork. When we wanted to cry, we went to Dennis," said Denise Matuza, a mother of three boys whose husband, Walter, was killed in the trade center attacks. "These guys, they even painted my house. They're just awesome."

Matuza and Sparacio have become part of a tight-knit group of widows and widowers who met through St. Clare's. Some like Matuza were members of the church, while others - like Sparacio, who is Jewish - simply found their way here in their search for help.

Together, they have weathered countless crises: One of Matuza's sons developed a serious eye disorder. And Sparacio, who was 13 weeks pregnant at the time of the attacks, lost the baby about a week before her due date in March 2002.

Last week, the two women were among the hundreds who gathered for a second-anniversary Mass at St. Clare's. Outside, an eternal flame flickered in front of a square of bricks, 28 of them inscribed with the names of the church members killed on Sept. 11, 2001, and a 29th one for baby Tom Sparacio, Jr.

When family members were invited to light a candle for lost relatives, the pews nearly emptied, so completely did the attacks slice through the parish. Two years later, the Ecclesiastes chapter seemed particularly comforting: "To every thing there is a season ... A time to be born, and a time to die ... a time to kill, and a time to heal ... A time to weep, and a time to laugh."

For Sparacio, with twin four-year-old boys to raise alone, it has only been recently that the weeping can sometimes give way to laughter.

"At some point, I realized the kids could make me laugh and I wouldn't cry at the same time because Tom wasn't there to see it," Sparacio said. "It's been a slow evolution."

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she had arrived at the school in Brooklyn where she worked as a psychologist to a message - a secretary said Tom had called, he was OK and had gotten out of the building. As the news unfolded that day, she thought she would soon get a call from him or he would turn up at home. But day after day passed with no sign of him, and Sparacio slowly accepted that her husband was not coming home.

On a recent afternoon, Sparacio was enjoying the last days of summer before the twins, Eric and Jonathan, would go to pre-school. In their home on a leafy street, sunlight filtering in through rice-paper shades, the boys had found a pair of their mother's high-heeled boots and each had donned one to clomp around in like a couple of peg-legged pirates. Out of the blue, one of them asked, "Did Daddy wear these boots?"

No, Daddy wore "boy shoes."

Sparacio welcomes such talk; she fears that the boys won't remember the father who died when they were just two.

The need to remember, both on private and public levels, consumes many family members today. They closely follow the redevelopment of Ground Zero and are largely adamant that the footprints of the twin towers be saved from development, down to the bedrock foundation level where many of the victims' remains were found.

Many have never recovered anything of their loved ones. Of the known victims, 46 percent have not been identified.

'Our therapy'

On Staten Island, the visceral need for something tangible of these lost souls has led many family members to adopt a triangular traffic median here as their ersatz cemetery, dubbing it "Angels' Circle."

The circle had its start when Wendy Pellegrino, who lives nearby, placed an American flag on the empty median after the attack. Soon, relatives began placing pictures of their missing, and Pelligrino ultimately arranged with the city to take responsibility for the upkeep.

Today, families can place a picture of a relative in one of the tidily landscaped rows, providing a sort of headstone for leaving flowers and other mementos. There is the boater who loved Long Island's Montauk, the Yankees fan kept company by a Roger Clemens bobblehead, the ones for whom friends and relatives have left a bottle of Absolut vodka, a jar of Skippy peanut butter or a cigarette lighter.

Sometimes, Pellegrino will look out her window and witness small dramas: Once, she saw a group of young children holding balloons gather around a woman's picture to sing "Happy Birthday." Another time, she saw a woman weeping on a bench at 2 a.m., so she went down to encourage her to go home.

"To what?" the woman asked. She had lost both her husband and her son.

"I didn't know any of these people before they died," Pellegrino said. "Now I know every one of them. I know their families. I know what they smoked. I know who was a fisherman, who was a gardener. I never dreamed in my lifetime that I'd be a keeper of a cemetery, but I am."

Every night after the sun goes down, Rose and Simone "Sam" Esposito come by to light candles in front of each picture.

"It's our therapy," Rose Esposito, touching the picture of their son, Michael, a firefighter in the elite Rescue 1 unit based in Brooklyn. Next to his picture is one of his cousin, Frank Esposito, also a firefighter.

Picture after picture depicts firefighters, many from nearby Rescue 5.

That morning, of 12 firefighters on duty, only one, Bill Spade, came back alive. Assigned to a one-man rig, Tactical Support 2, he was alone in the firehouse that morning because the others had responded to an alarm. Spade is haunted by vivid dreams of the men he last saw at breakfast that morning, sharing French toast and chatter about the annual fire company party that they had just attended.

Arriving alone in his rig at the trade center, he was sent to help evacuate the north tower. He led several groups of workers from the building and was outside with seven that he had aided when the tower came crashing down.

He was thrown against a wall, and curled into a ball as debris rained down on him. He said a silent goodbye to his wife and his two sons, choking on a mouthful of debris and the thought that the younger one, just two months old, would never even know his father.

"I think that gave me more fight," Spade said.

When the rain of debris stopped, he discovered that four of his group were dead, including a worker he had helped carry from the tower. Spade eventually made his way through the rubble. An ambulance took him to the hospital.

It was only then that he was able to ask about the rest of the crew - and learn they were all missing. After his release from the hospital, he was asked to speak to some of his colleagues' wives, desperate for any information on their husband's final hours. Spade felt terrible that he couldn't tell them anything beyond breakfast at the firehouse.

"It's still tough to face some of them," he said.

He had spent 11 years at Rescue 5 and was just months shy of the magic 20 years that many firefighters put in before they retire. But he couldn't face returning to the bereft firehouse and decided, with his lingering knee and lung injuries from the attacks, to retire last March.

"It would be too tough to walk in those doors," Spade said. Being at home, playing Mr. Mom to his boys is a "new normal" that he can accept, he says.

For those further removed from the attacks, the return to normality has been less fraught with personal involvement. Today, daily life continues as regularly as the ferry plies its way back and forth.

"You get used to it," saidRichard Piccininni, who continues to commute from his home on Staten Island to his job as a systems programmer on Wall Street.

Back to the ferry

Images from the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, are forever etched in the memory of ferry riders: Of the blinding smoke that rushed through their boat. Of the horrible orange fireball that blossomed from the face of one of the towers. Of the desperate rush to get back on their reliable ferry and head toward safety, and Staten Island.

Piccininni had just gotten off the boat when the second plane screeched low overhead and slammed into the south tower. From their vantage point - on the ground with buildings between them and the trade center - they could only hear rather than see what had happened, he said, but they knew exactly what to do.

"A hundred people, in unison," he said, "just turned around and got back on the ferry."

Riding the ferry, he sometimes reflects on the irony of coming full circle: He worked downtown as a high school student and remembers seeing the twin towers being built from the ground up - or rather, from below ground up. And then, as an adult, he saw them vanish like a time-lapse film in reverse.

"I remember the hole for the trade center quite vividly," Piccininni said. "Little did I know I would ever see it again."

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