Memories of reunion give husband hope

Missing wife survived '93 bombing, so man says he can't give up

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 17, 2001|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- Kent Yee has trouble recalling things he was certain of a week ago: what grade his son, Jordan, attends, how to spell his wife's maiden name, the quickest route home from his mother-in-law's apartment in Newark, N.J.

He has forgotten altogether the time between when hijackers rammed a plane into the World Trade Center north tower one floor above where his wife was conducting a meeting and the moment when the building sank into itself.

What he has not forgotten is the elation he felt -- eight years ago -- when he was reunited with Olabisi Layeni Yee many hours after terrorists first struck the World Trade Center.

That memory gives hope to the pragmatic 43-year-old New Yorker: If it happened once, it can happen again.

Olabisi, the woman he met in a tower department store 18 years ago, might still walk back into his life.

"She is what I call my ray of sunshine," Yee said Saturday night after an impromptu family prayer meeting for the missing Staten Island woman. "She was my companion, she was my best friend, she was such a wonderful mother."

Yee hasn't decided which tense to use when he speaks about Olabisi, 38.

The couple met in 1983 as employees at Alexander Department Store, a discount retailer that was located in the then decade-old World Trade Center. Olabisi was a 20-year-old cashier; Kent, a 25-year-old assistant manager.

Every time she passed, Yee felt a chill.

She was the first -- and only -- woman he ever asked on a date.

"I just had a feeling about her," he said.

They married in 1987.

Olabisi, the eldest of five girls, was born in Monrovia, Liberia, to a Liberian mother and a Nigerian father. Kent, born and raised in Brooklyn, has close family in China.

Families grow together

Their marriage united two large clans across vast cultural differences. The past seven days have knit relatives from Hong Kong to suburban Maryland even closer.

Never mind that no survivor has been pulled from the rubble since Wednesday. The family's global conviction that Olabisi is buried alive has given Yee's search a firm focal point.

A day after the crashes, Yee went back to the lower Manhattan police station where in 1993, after the terrorist bombing that killed six and injured more than 1,000, he filled out a missing-persons form for his wife.

Revisiting the process brought strange comfort because Olabisi Layeni Yee walked away from the bombing, shaken but unhurt, 12 hours later.

This time, the paperwork covered every contingency, Kent Yee said.

"Scars, what she was wearing that day, did she have extra piercings, how did she wear her hair, what color stockings did she wear. Anything so they could recognize her body," he said.

He listed the pale jade heart she wore Tuesday morning, a favorite charm bracelet and her yellow and red kente cloth dress.

An uneasy wait has settled in. Olabisi Layeni Yee hasn't appeared on the roster of confirmed dead pulled from the crash site. Nor was hers among the names of patients treated in area hospitals.

During the past week, the Layeni and Yee families have scoured the spiritual horizon for clues to Olabisi's welfare. Yee's brother in China consulted a Buddhist monk. His mother-in-law, Edith, called on a tea leaf reader and a woman who makes predictions based on signs in spent coffee grounds. Roman Catholic relatives have prayed for her safe return. Neighbors have festooned the family's Mariner's Cove townhouse with yellow ribbons and an altar with tall golden candles.

"I'm not a church person, but every sign has come back positive that she is OK," Yee said after a prayer meeting Saturday.

"We have not seen her name. We have not been notified that her body has been recovered. There is still the chance that she is somewhere and we are waiting for her.

"It just feels like she is alive," he added.

Ominous phone call

Still, the last time her family spoke with Olabisi on Tuesday morning, the assistant office manager's prospects sounded bleak.

During a half-dozen calls between the moment of impact and the time the second tower collapsed, she described to Yee and her sisters the fright inside International Office Centers, a company that leased temporary office space on the 79th floor.

She told of the inky blackness, the smoke, the claustrophobic closeness, the enveloping fear.

When the first plane struck, she and co-workers Gricelda James, Cynthia Wilson and Rosemary Carson found the nearest hallways and three other exits blocked.

She was trapped inside, said Latee, the youngest Layeni sister.

"She said, `The walls are caving in. We can't get out,'" she said.

"I kept begging her to leave and she said, `Please, please don't cry.' She was trying to keep it together."

As the ceiling tiles began to fall over her head, she asked Yee to take care of their 9-year-old son, Jordan, and 2-year-old daughter, Jenna.

But since Tuesday, it has been Yee's younger brother, Tom, and his four sisters-in-law who have taken care of them all: distracting the children, discouraging Edith from despair and cajoling Kent to eat and sleep.

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