No experience prepares for pain of personal loss

September 21, 2001|By Ann LoLordo

WHAT REMAINED of the suicide bomber lay on the stone pavement covered by a blue tarp. Religious men scoured the area for the victims' remains, careful to retrieve the tiniest bit of flesh in their rubber-gloved hands. Blood stained the lingerie displayed in a store's blown-out front window. A hairdresser cowered in her shop, her eyes unseeing in the shock of the afternoon's events.

The 1997 terrorist attack on Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem's popular pedestrian mall, was my third suicide bombing. I described the scene vividly, gave voice to the country's anguish cries, filed my report and walked to my apartment with the million-dollar view of the walled Old City and fell, exhausted, into bed. I slept deeply.

In New York now, there are no remains to speak of. The terrorists that struck last week were incinerated in four airplane crashes. Their victims, thousands of them, vanished in the same explosions. Dismembered bodies are buried beneath New York's collapsed World Trade Center, in the wreckage of the Pentagon and at a Pennsylvania field.

I witnessed none of it. Yet I sleep fitfully.

In the Middle East, I knew none of the victims and had trouble pronouncing their names. In New York they are burying childhood friends. I know their names too well -- Timmy Kelly, Tim Coughlin, Joe and Danny Shea, Eddie Papa, Kevin Cosgrove and more.

Like so many guys from my hometown on Long Island, they made their living in Manhattan's financial district. I remember them in their youth -- Timmy's mop of blond hair, Kevin's chipped tooth, Eddie's gorgeous smile. I had not seen them in years. But I would have greeted each by his first name at Sunday Mass or the local bar in our town.

The names and faces from my childhood are not so easily forgotten. Several were classmates of my younger sisters and brother in the Catholic school we attended.

That they are among the missing makes this personal. I am hundreds of miles from ground zero, but I am still too close.

At night, the crickets are maddening; I find no solace in their song. And when air flights resumed over my contemplative, riverside home I felt relief at once again hearing the roar of the jets.

Unlike most Americans, I have seen terror up close, smelled the acrid smoke that clings to your clothes after a suicide bombing, sat with a mother whose teen-age daughter never returned from a shopping trip with her friends.

I think, my days in the Mideast should have steeled me to the pictures filling my television screen, to the sad news from home, to the eulogies I will soon hear.

They have not.

Then I recall an afternoon in Tel Aviv in the spring of 1997, two days after a suicide bomber had exploded his lethal package at a trendy outdoor cafM-i, killing three women.

The Apropo CafM-i was reopening. Staffers had scrubbed the patio clean of blood, replaced the bomb-blasted windows and stocked the dessert case with treats.

It was Purim, a festive holiday replete with costumes that commemorates the deliverance of the Persian Jews from a planned massacre more than 2,000 years ago.

Four men in ostrich suits arrived at the cafM-i. They were greeted by a waitress in a Wonder Woman outfit, a crown on her head, a sword at her hip.

A black-draped chair held three memorial candles for the bombing victims who were being buried that day.

CafM-i owner Nachi Laor told me then he wanted to quickly reopen the cafM-i for one reason and one reason alone: "To show that nobody can defeat us."

Ann LoLordo served as The Sun's Middle East correspondent from June 1996 to October 1999. She is now an editor on the Features desk.

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