The Stories of 9/11 Lie Beneath Brooklyn
09.01.2006, 04:44 PM
And Feliciano, standing on the soft grass of Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, remembers the morning five years ago when he dropped his wife at a nearby subway station to board a train for work at the World Trade Center.
He's engaged now, and their two girls - so small when she died - are growing up fast. So much has changed, in his life and around the world. And yet here, time somehow stands still.
Rosa Maria Feliciano, forever 30, is not alone.
In this vast, historic cemetery, studded with the names of famous New Yorkers, lie 79 victims of Sept. 11, 2001, brought together by the randomness of both life and death.
There's David DeRubbio, the firefighter from Engine Co. 226 whose polished headstone reflects the Statue of Liberty on a clear day. Nine short steps behind his plot lies Giovanna Galletta Gambale, a Cantor Fitzgerald worker known to her friends as Gennie.
Take a short stroll, and there's the trio from Ladder Co. 118: Joey Bells, Big Head and Mo, side by side eternally on a gentle slope in the cemetery's Winterberry section. Walk 25 feet east to find Uhuru Houston, the handsome Port Authority cop with the broad smile.
They were among 2,749 victims of terror in lower Manhattan. Now, on 478 verdant acres in Brooklyn, they are gathered again, their lost futures etched in stone, each marked with the one thing they shared: Sept. 11, 2001.
Green-Wood took in 17 employees from Cantor Fitzgerald, along with 15 city firefighters. Victims from two of the hijacked planes, including one of the heroes from United Flight 93, were brought here. There are three victims from the Windows on the World restaurant, two Port Authority police officers, one air-conditioning repairman.
Their survivors arrive in a steady, sad procession between the marble and granite markers: widows and widowers, children without a parent, parents without children. This is where families and friends come to grieve - and where Rosa Feliciano's husband comes to work, and to heal.
"Coming back here helped me out a lot," says Isaac Feliciano, a cemetery foreman who took his job at Green-Wood a dozen years ago. "Any time I feel it, I just go to visit her grave."
On the morning of the attack, the cemetery's workers - standing on the highest point in Brooklyn - watched in disbelief as two of the world's tallest buildings collapsed, spewing a toxic black cloud above the Manhattan skyline.
Feliciano was among them. He said goodbye to Rosa barely an hour before the first plane hit the north tower, where she worked on the 96th floor, at 8:46 a.m. The second plane slammed into the south tower 17 minutes later.
For several days, the wind carried trade center debris across the harbor to Brooklyn, where it fell on rooftops, sidewalks and the manicured grounds of Green-Wood. Feliciano found papers from his wife's company, Marsh & McLennan.
And then the victims began arriving - the first pair came in six days later, as it slowly became evident there were no survivors emerging from the burning pit at ground zero. Body parts, bone fragments and bits of tissue were all that remained of most.
The bodies are still coming in. The most recent, stockbroker Carl Peralta, was cremated at the cemetery two months ago.
Nowhere is the toll of 9/11 more evident than the short stretch - less than the length of an FDNY ladder truck - where seven would-be rescuers are buried beneath a stretch of newly sprouted grass. Three worked together at Brooklyn's Ladder Co. 118: Joey "Bells" Agnello, Peter "Big Head" Vega and Vernon "Mo" Cherry, half of the company's crew as they raced across the Brooklyn Bridge after the second plane hit.
Nobody aboard survived. The six firefighters were last seen in the lobby of the Marriott World Trade Center hotel, where they steered hundreds of panicked people to safety before the towers collapsed, destroying the 22-story hotel. Two other firefighters from the companion Engine Co. 205 died as well.
When the remains of Agnello and Vega were discovered, their families had them laid next to each other: Plot No. 43 for Vega, No. 44 for Agnello. Five months later, Vernon Cherry arrived at No. 45.
Small American flags flutter alongside their headstones. Vega's final resting spot is adorned with a Puerto Rican flag as well. A folded note to Agnello - "Forever in our hearts," reads the inscription on his stone - is sealed inside a plastic bag that also contains a red plastic ladybug.
A stuffed animal rests alongside Vega's stone. The marker for Cherry features a picture of him standing before a microphone, launching into song.
"Forever loved," reads the inscription.
For the more than 1,000 families whose loved ones were never identified, 9/11 remains an open wound. For others who initially found comfort through identification and funerals, the healing was often disrupted as additional remains were identified through DNA.
It happened to six of the Green-Wood victims. One was Agnello, the firefighter; his family interred more of the 9/11 rescuer's remains in August 2005.
Pamela Boyce was a vice president at Carr Futures, and the first victim to arrive at the cemetery after Sept. 11, 2001. She was cremated. And then, on April 15, 2005, the process was repeated after the city medical examiner identified more remains.
One of Rosa Feliciano's Marsh & McLennan co-workers, Andrew Bailey, was buried at Green-Wood in May 2002. And then his family was forced to relive the painful process in March 2005.
Isaac Feliciano was accepting his loss, raising his two daughters as a single parent and struggling to get life back together. His family held a memorial service for Rosa, convinced her remains would never be found. But in January 2002, there was a proper burial at Green-Wood after the medical examiner identified her.
And then last year, just before Mother's Day, more of Rosa's remains were identified. Feliciano was suddenly hurled back into depression, forced to deal with the array of emotions that surfaced and submerged across the last five years.
"You start to wonder - why wasn't it me instead of her?" Feliciano says. "You feel guilty about something you did or didn't do."
Some families have returned to the cemetery with new tragedies.
In November 2002, Thomas Bocchino spoke movingly about his older brother Michael at a funeral service for the firefighter from Battalion 48 in Brooklyn.
Michael's mahogany coffin was buried beneath a granite tombstone depicting a firefighter in full gear: helmet, flashlight, oxygen tank strapped across his back. His brother was among those who made the three-block trip from Immaculate Heart of Mary Church to the cemetery where Michael was laid to rest.
A small sign with black lettering stands alongside the grave:
"Michael J. Bocchino
"September 11, 2001
"God Bless America."
Michael Bocchino was 45.
Then, three years later. Thomas Bocchino died, too, just six days after his 44th birthday. He was buried alongside Michael; prayer cards from their wakes now dangle from a chain that hangs around the stone firefighter's neck.
Isaac Feliciano looks away from his wife's grave and considers the future. There's a January wedding in Brazil, his fiancee's homeland. His oldest daughter just turned 11, and his younger girl celebrates her eighth birthday on Halloween.
A new wife and a new life await.
Feliciano avoids television footage from that September morning five years ago. "I try not to watch that stuff," he says. "I just try to remember the good times."
As this anniversary approached, the cemetery's workers were dispatched to make sure all the victims' gravesites were in top condition. Feliciano's 20-man crew handled a section of the cemetery adjacent to where Rosa lies.
"Feliciano, Rosa M. Beloved wife and mother," reads the inscription. "Dec. 20, 1970 - Sept. 11, 2001." An engraved rose is intertwined with a cross.
Nearby grows a 20-foot-high flowering plum tree, planted by Isaac in her memory. Feliciano says his mother-in-law and his two daughters come by every Sunday to visit. He stops by more often, sometimes right after finishing his shift, still wearing his green work uniform.
"It brings me comfort," he says.
And then Isaac Feliciano goes back to work.
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