For months, Tawnya Murphy and her fiance had been carefully planning their October 2002 nuptials.
The Towson couple wanted to marry at the Cloisters, the beautiful medieval mansion in Brooklandville where Will Smith and Jada Pinkett were wed. And family members were planning to fly in from all over the country.
Then, the morning of Sept. 11 arrived.
"For both of us, we were thinking, there were so many people in that [World] Trade Center that I'm sure were planning on getting married or having children down the road," said Murphy, 29, recalling how she felt that September morning as she raced home to be with her fiance, William Cunningham, and their daughter. "Now, they're never going to get the chance to do that."
So, in three weeks, Murphy and Cunningham are planning to trek up to New York City to get married at City Hall. They are among numerous couples across the country for whom last month's horrific terrorist attacks have been a call to re-evaluate their relationships.
And many are deciding either to get married or wed sooner in these uncertain times.
"With everything that's happened, my view is, you live for the day," said Murphy, an assistant caseworker with the Baltimore County Department of Housing. "We thought it was ridiculous to wait a whole year because you don't know what's going to happen the next day."
Experts say such reactions are expected in these times, where talk of war dominates news coverage and conversations everywhere and people are forced to ponder their mortality almost daily. In a recent poll by online dating service Eharmony.com, 44 percent of 7,500 users questioned said they had an "increased desire" to find a mate since Sept. 11 when terrorists hijacked four planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington and a field in Pennsylvania.
"At times of crisis, people are looking for greater connections with other people," said Geoffrey Greif, associate dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who has researched the effects of stress on relationships. "Part of what's going on is that we have a very vivid image in our heads of people making those last-minute phone calls, be they from planes or the top of the World Trade Center. Everybody in the U.S. has got to think, 'If I had that one last phone call, who would I call? Would I call my significant other? Would I call my parents? My children? My friends?'
"The people who aren't sure who they would call are going to be considering the fact that they wish they had that one person to call," Greif added. "And that may compel them to try to establish a relationship that, hopefully, is built on more than a pseudo-need for having that one person to call."
For Elizabeth Speed, her decision to marry her fiance in December - months ahead of their planned summer 2002 wedding - stemmed from a sudden fear that they would never make it to the altar after five years of dating.
Speed, 22, an assistant television producer in Pittsburgh, remembered hearing about the WTC and Pentagon crashes while in her car and thinking, "Thank God he wasn't there. Thank God he's OK."
"Then, at about the time that the plane crashed here [near Pittsburgh], that was just a little bit too close to home for me," said Speed, whose fiance, John Kabus, is a software developer. "That's when I thought, 'There's no real reason to wait for this. We've known we want to get married for a while. What if he had been in the middle of that field in Shanksville? What if something had happened to him and we just hadn't taken that last step?'
"I love him with everything I've got and to just not have made that statement to everyone we know and to the world and made it official feels like it would have been an open book that would never be closed," she added.
So, the couple immediately started planning the wedding for the earliest date that relatives from the United States and Asia could make - Dec. 15.
Carley Roney, co-founder of Theknot.com, said many of the couples who are plunging into marriage now are like Speed and Kabus. They usually have been dating for some time and decided to move up their wedding dates after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"People are looking at marriage a little bit differently," Roney said. "During peacetime, in America, where economically, socially and certainly survival-wise, there wasn't any need to get married, people were looking at marriage as a place to find their soul-mate. The expectation was so incredibly high to have that person be that ultimate joy in your life. But there's been an instant change in the psyche of our time.
"Now, the insecurity of our lives makes people feel they need someone to survive with," she said. "It's not that their expectations are lowered, they're just more realistic and based on quantifiable things like not wanting to be alone and wanting to have a family and a partner to go through this next period of time with."
But experts cautioned against making rash decisions at this time.
"Just because right now, you're feeling such anxiety about world events and what happened in New York or Washington, D.C., don't jump into a relationship where you're not really well-matched," said Dr. Neil Clark Warren, co-founder of Eharmony.com. "Marriage can be a great thing. ... Just make sure you do it right."
For couples who are already engaged, there are advantages in planning a quick wedding these days. Heather, who is on active duty in the military, cobbled together a church wedding in just 48 hours in Norfolk, Va., Sept. 29 after her fiance, who is in the Navy, was notified that he had just 10 days to "tie up loose ends" before being sent to war. The couple was engaged but hadn't set a wedding date.
Heather, who did not want her last name published for security reasons, said they had to rush to make preparations like buying a wedding dress and arranging a reception at a restaurant. But she felt they enjoyed their wedding more because they didn't get caught up in the incidentals.
"So I don't have my name on a napkin, but everything came out so wonderfully it was even better this way," said Heather, 25. "All the worries that you have - Are the dresses going to match on my bridesmaids? Is the band going to show up? - we didn't have to think about. We had so many people wanting to help us once they found out about our situation. The bridal shop did alterations on my dress in less than 24 hours. The men's tailor we went to gave us a 10 percent discount on his suit. My two bridesmaids drove nine hours to be there. I wouldn't trade it for anything because it was so special how it happened."
And, without worrying about all the usual matrimonial frills, Heather said she and her fiance were able to focus on the most important aspect of their wedding - each other.
"If something happened and somehow we weren't able to do this," she said, "I'd always look back and say, 'God, I should have done this. Why didn't I do it?' "
Many recent brides have incorporated elements honoring victims and heroes of the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters in their weddings. Here are some examples by Carley Roney, co-founder of Theknot.com:
Have a moment of silence or prayer or sing "God Bless America" during the ceremony.
Make a statement or tribute during the reception, perhaps in the welcoming toast.
Light candles in honor of the heroes and victims of the tragedies. Some brides also have been taking their bouquets or centerpieces to fire stations or war memorials to honor rescuers.
Include American colors by adding little flags to the bride's bouquet or hand out red, white and blue ribbons for guests to pin on their outfits.
In lieu of wedding gifts, encourage guests to contribute to a relief fund.