Traces of life after Sept. 11

SUN JOURNAL

Portraits: An artist donates her skills to help victims' families heal through paper, pencil - and her own intuition.

April 04, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MIDDLETOWN, N.J. - At her drawing table on a recent morning, Nancy Gawron reaches for her sepia-colored pencil and speaks Jessica's name aloud, asking for help from the 23-year-old accountant with wavy brown hair who beams at her from a college photo.

Gawron begins sketching a likeness, starting as always with the eyes.

But when she gets to the mouth, something subtle happens beyond the artist's control. The smile emerges in a slightly softer, more relaxed incarnation - perhaps, Gawron says, more like the real Jessica would smile when she wasn't posing for a picture. "I've learned to trust it, and go with it," Gawron says.

Jessica Leigh Sachs, an ambitious and fervently religious young woman who worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Boston and loved to shop, was on her first long-distance business trip Sept. 11, 2001, when her plane was hijacked and deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center.

Here, on a 16-by-20-inch pastel pink matted board, she becomes the 256th victim to be commemorated by Gawron, an artist in this Jersey shore community who is offering portraits free of charge to any family wanting one. She has completed 266 portraits, and 126 requests are waiting.

"I can't begin to describe how it's changed my life," Gawron says, wearing a sweat shirt with red, white and blue letters spelling AMERICA and a flag pin with images of the twin towers. "It's a privilege to be part of the healing process."

In the cozy, cluttered upstairs study of the suburban home that she shares with her husband, a photo album captures the breadth and poignancy of her project.

Page after page, people in the prime of their lives, in wedding poses, in police and firefighters' uniforms, with broad smiles and flushed cheeks peer out, captured in a timeless trio of sepia tones.

Here are two sisters who died in the Pennsylvania crash; two cousins - both police officers - side by side; a young mother with her baby; a man on his horse. There is Kenny Tietjen, a 31-year-old Port Authority police officer who commandeered a taxi cab and drove like a madman to the trade center to help with the rescue, only to be lost in the building collapse.

Some of the portraits are composites, husband, wife and children, including babies born to women who were pregnant when their husbands died in the attacks - families that Gawron put together after they were ripped apart.

Gawron remembers one local woman, a Sept. 11 widow whose baby was born four days after the attacks, who burst into tears when she picked up her family portrait. It includes the baby her husband never met.

"She kept sobbing, and when she got to the point where she could say something, she said, `Now I know what we would have looked like,' " Gawron recalls.

Gawron, 61, had been an artist for 40 years, specializing in portraits - human and animal - about half that time. Then came the terrorist strikes that killed 37 residents of Middletown, a greater loss than any other town.

Gawron herself escaped the personal horror. Her husband and son worked in midtown Manhattan, and returned safely.

Within a week, Gawron realized there was one, powerful way she could help.

She posted fliers around Middletown and nearby Red Bank, and soon received a handful of requests. When she learned that the investment company Cantor Fitzgerald had lost 658 employees, a number of them from the Middletown area, she posted her offer on the company's Web site.

The requests poured in. And as her story appeared in print as well as on TV and radio broadcasts in various countries, including CBS' 48 Hours, she began hearing from families across the country.

"After Jessica died, we didn't want her to be forgotten," says Jessica's mother, Karen Sachs, of Billerica Mass., who says she lost her best friend that day. "The portrait will be here for a long time. We'll give it to our son and in the future hopefully one of his children will get it, and hopefully will get to know who their aunt was."

"It's the perfect image of my son," says Janice Tietjen, of Middletown, mother of Kenny, the police officer and volunteer firefighter who was in training for an elite emergency police unit in New York. "The twinkle in his eyes, it seemed like she knew him to capture him like that. Anyone who comes in my house and knows my son takes a step back, they're so astounded by how much it looks like him."

Gawron won't put a deadline on her portraits because she doesn't want to penalize people who took longer to heal.

She will sketch all 3,000 victims if she's asked, she says. At her current rate of one portrait a day, it would take 10 years.

The only charge is $12 for shipping costs. The reward she gets from the families' gratitude is immeasurable, she says.

"One gentleman who lost a son in his 20s told me: "When I opened the box, it was like my son said `Hi, I'm home,' she recalls. "I've received that response from many families. They feel a little piece of that person has come home."

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