For victims' families, 9/11's aftermath still looms large

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 29, 2011 

Peter and Sue Hanson and daughter Christine died on Sept. 11, 2001.

MCT

WASHINGTON — Soon after her mom died aboard the first hijacked plane to hit the World Trade Center, Carie Lemack vowed "to make sure it never happens again" and launched a career fighting terrorism. Last year, she won an Oscar nomination for her film examining its global impact.

C. Lee Hanson, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and 2-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter on Sept. 11, has spent part of his retirement traveling to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, telling the U.S. attorney general of his opposition to civilian trials for terrorists and protesting construction of a mosque near Ground Zero.

Christie Coombs, widowed with three kids on 9/11, was so moved by kindnesses from friends and strangers that she coached her children to "pay it forward." They've helped raise upward of $500,000 for others facing hardships and tragedy.

Spouses, parents and children of the nearly 3,000 victims have endured constant reminders over the last decade of the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001 — anniversaries, a drumbeat of terrorism alerts and arrests, the drawn-out identification of body parts and the recent killing of Osama bin Laden.

But Lemack, Hanson and Coombs are emblematic of many family members who've found inner strength, even inspiration, despite the holes in their hearts.

In 2007, a RAND Corp. study concluded that relatives of 9/11 victims had amassed "a powerful voice" in Washington. Forming groups and organizing online, they were "remarkably successful in pressuring the U.S. Congress to establish a commission to investigate the 9/11 attacks, getting the White House to approve it, and then ensuring that the commission's most important recommendations were enacted into law," it said.

While some family members have been locked in depression for years, here are three who found their way forward.

'A LIFE MY MOM WOULD BE PROUD OF'

When her mother, Judith Camilla Laroque of Framingham, Mass., died on American Airlines Flight 11, Lemack, then 26, lost "my best friend and confidante," she later wrote.

Something clicked when Lemack read a newspaper story quoting survivors of those killed in the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. They lamented the failure of their 13-year campaign for tighter airline security to prevent the 9/11 hijackings.

"I talked to my sister and said we need to make sure mom's murder is enough," Lemack said.

A novice on terrorism and politics, she co-founded Families of September 11, one of the largest survivor organizations, and was a vice president of another group spearheading the push to create the 9/11 commission.

Her height — 4 feet 10 3/4 inches — belied steely determination as she strolled the halls of Congress with other survivors to push for implementation of the panel's key recommendations, including overhauling the intelligence community.

She showed tenacity again by foreswearing rights to compensation from a $7 billion federal victims' fund and joining 94 other families in suing American Airlines and United Airlines over alleged security lapses. Lemack's family and all but one other have accepted settlements.

By 2008, Lemack had graduate degrees from Stanford and Harvard and represented the United States at a United Nations symposium for terrorism survivors.

A year later, in Amman, Jordan, scene of a horrific 2005 hotel bombing, she co-founded the Global Survivors Network. The group is circulating her award-winning short film, "Killing in the Name," which sends a powerful message about terrorism's impact on victims' families.

The RAND study hailed Lemack as a "truly inspirational figure."

Now 36, Lemack said she's only trying to "live a life my mom would be proud of, and to make sure that others don't suffer the way that she and thousands of others have."

HIGH ON PEOPLE

Phoning from United Airlines Flight 175, Peter Hanson gently told his father that hijackers appeared to be planning to crash the plane into a building.

"Don't worry, Dad. If it happens, it will be quick," Peter said, with his Korean-born wife, Sue, and their little girl, Christine, sitting on the plane beside him.

Moments later, C. Lee Hanson watched on television as his son's plane hit the World Trade Center's south tower and burst into a fireball.

Hanson, a recently retired corporate executive, and his wife, Eunice, the registrar in their hometown of Easton, Conn., were knocked sideways with shock. Christine was the youngest of all the 9/11 victims.

Tearfully, Hanson sorted out their estate and, assuming they'd been vaporized, collected toothbrushes and hair follicles containing their DNA at their home in Groton, Mass., in faint hopes of recovering their remains.

Sometime later, a New York police detective phoned to say they'd identified a small bone of Peter's.

Hanson was surprised to be "really happy." He and his wife joined those seeking an expanded search for body parts around Ground Zero and at a landfill in Fresh Kills, N.Y., and grew increasingly outspoken.

"Life changes," Hanson said. "You're doing things you never thought you'd be doing."

In 2006, he wept as he described Peter's final calls while testifying at 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui's death-penalty trial.

The Hansons were among survivors who met with Attorney General Eric Holder, objecting to the proposed trial in New York of suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. They also traveled to Guantanamo Bay, arguing on behalf of victims' families that the terrorism detainees there should be relegated to military courts.

Last year, Hanson spoke into a microphone near Ground Zero, saying that he feared Islamists wanted to build a mosque nearby "to show conquest, domination and humiliation of their enemies."

While he respects Islam, Hanson said "the wheels of my son's airplane ... were embedded for awhile" in the building that would house the mosque.

Controversies aside, Hanson said he's been deeply touched by Americans' generosity and is "high on people."

In 2003, volunteers in Groton rebuilt the dilapidated playground where the Hansons' grandchild had played. They renamed it "Christine's Playground."

SOMETHING POSITIVE

The day after 42-year-old Jeffrey Coombs died aboard American Airlines Flight 11, a restaurateur friend showed up unsolicited at the family's home in Abingdon, Mass., set up a breakfast buffet in the garage and kept the meals going for two days — gratis.

A 9-year-old girl from a nearby town who shared Jeff's birthday sent the Coombs her birthday money. A kid with a paper route gave the family a week's collections.

Brokenhearted at the death of her college sweetheart, Christie Coombs was struck by the outpouring of kindnesses big and small. A freelance journalist, she sensed that she "needed to put all that negative energy from 9/11 into something positive."

She beckoned her kids — Matthew, 13, Meaghan, 11, and Julia, 7 — to "pay it forward, do something good for other people because of what people have done for us."

Soon, donations poured in for a huge yard sale and auction for the Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation. Arizona native Coombs even got a baseball autographed by star pitcher Randy Johnson of the World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks.

In one morning that November, the family raised $50,000 for families of immigrants who died working in the Windows on the World restaurant atop the Trade Center's north tower and to other 9/11 victims' families facing financial predicaments.

They've continued to raise money for the foundation, largely with an annual 5K race that has gained a reputation among serious runners. Since 2007, the Coombs have held holiday parties for families of U.S. troops overseas.

Her tragedy, Coombs said, has "changed my appreciation for what other people go through on a daily basis."

But not even a 2 1/2-year relationship with a new love has eradicated the pain.

At a recent wedding, she and her daughter had to leave the room during the father-daughter dance to the song "Butterfly Kisses" when both remembered how Jeff had brushed eyelashes with his kids.

The family preserved the deck that Jeff was building when he died even though it didn't fit perfectly with plans for a new swimming pool, and the shirt and boots he wore still hang over his workbench in the cellar, Coombs said.

A new pantry had to be built around a bulletin board that the kids plastered with pictures of Jeff, she said, because she'd be "disrespecting Jeff and the way the kids honor their dad if I were to disrupt any of that."

Jeff's pictures hang all over the house.

"He is still the love of my life," Coombs said, "and he always will be."

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