The Resolute

For some survivors of the Sept. 11 tragedy in New York, new year's resolutions are irrelevant - they've already changed their lives.

January 01, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - On an ashen, warm-for-December day - a day nothing like the Windex-blue morning of Sept. 11 - Erin Holzman walks the perimeter of ground zero in Lower Manhattan, where sneakers remain a must. At great distance, the cordoned-off area might look like a vast construction site occupied by crews of dusty guys in hard hats. But everyone knows better. Holzman tears up when she sees the towering black tarps draped on the surviving structures, as if the widowed buildings are still in mourning.

Holzman, a 32-year-old former Baltimore resident, watched and photographed the twin towers burn from her rooftop 12 blocks away. From the Saint's Alp Teahouse in the neighborhood three months later, she shares her keepsake photographs. The pictures prove she either used a professional zoom lens or Erin Holzman was as close as a body needed to be.

"I thought I was going to die that day."

So, there it is. She thought she was going to die. After believing such a thing, where does one go from there? Forward - by another way.

Comes a new year: The same ball dropped, same forward thinking, same resolutions. People pledged to lose weight, take up the alto sax, connect with family members, to become better people. For those bonded to the Sept. 11 tragedy, however, the new year is not weight-conscious or sports-minded. Happiness does not depend on the next job offer or meeting the next yummy guy or gal.

"Who cares about the 5 pounds?" says Robyn Brenza of Baltimore, who was inside the World Trade Center when the hijacked planes struck. "My resolution this year is to not focus on silly resolutions."

If nothing else, the new year allows us to say the terrorist attacks occurred last year. Off the books, in a way. If something more, the attacks became a defining moment for at least three people we first read about in September. They are Erin Holzman, Robyn Brenza and Michael Fitz-Patrick.

Their lives changed in discerning ways. The playing of the national anthem elicits rapt attention and sometimes tears. They keep an almost subconscious lookout for World Trade Center images in movies, television shows or books. There's no escaping the image, even in something as innocuous as The Muppets Take Manhattan - one of Brenza's favorite fun movies. She can't watch it anymore. Watching any television, World Trade Center survivor Fitz-Patrick says, has lost much of its appeal. Why waste the time?

For survivors, there is no shortage of reminders. Brenza was back in New York on business on the same days the government issued "heightened states of alert" after the attacks. "The first two times it absolutely terrified me, and it was all I could do to get through my trips."

After the third alert, Brenza realized she couldn't be any more alert. "Oh, shut up! I'm over it! Enough," Brenza says, laughing now, thinking then: "I just need to go on living my life and not worry about it."

After the initial blast of fear, the tragedy tested survivors' notions of career, family and sense of home. Constant traveling for work has to stop, says Fitz-Patrick, a 28-year-old financial adviser at Morgan Stanley. He works in Hunt Valley but was in New York for a training session on the 61st floor of Tower 2 when a hijacked plane struck.

The bar has been raised on friendships and dating. When you're hugging the outside of a burning 110-floor building in the hopes no debris will crush you - such as Brenza did - and you're reciting Hail Marys, you might later find yourself not as inclined to waste time dating for the sake of dating.

It's also hard to muster sympathy for a friend complaining he had no one to watch TV coverage of the terrorist attacks with - given you were in one of the towers. The fact your friend didn't have a girlfriend for the big event might not be one of your more pressing concerns.

Late with the Christmas cards this year? Your football team lose in overtime?

"You do want people to get a little perspective," Brenza says.

A 27-year-old public relations spokeswoman for T. Rowe Price, Brenza started Sept. 11 with an upset stomach. Around 8:30 a.m., she ducked into the Marriott World Trade Center's gift shop to buy Pepto Bismol. Watching an older man at the register counting money, she jokingly said they should take the money and run. No, the man says, taking my money would be like taking my luck. He told her: Just remember, dear, people can take a lot of things from you, but they can't take your wisdom or your luck, Brenza wrote in her journal later that day.

Minutes after the encounter, Brenza was in the lobby of Tower 2 when the plane struck. Her journal - which would travel via the Web to points as far east as China - would detail a routine business trip that turned into a day of reckoning.

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