Determined that 9/11 won't be forgotten

Mother of a World Trade Center victim makes probably last visit into the `pit'

September 12, 2007|By Erika Hayasaki | Erika Hayasaki,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK -- Sitting in a chair just after 7:30 a.m., beneath the amber glow of a hallway light, Carol Ashley leans over and ties the laces of an old pair of sneakers. She slips her good shoes into her purse. She knows it will be muddy in the pit.

Outside, the sky is gray and rain slaps her windows. Six years ago on a Tuesday morning nothing like this one, Ashley's 25-year-old daughter, Janice, stood in this hallway wearing a taupe dress suit, a silver watch and her great-grandmother's pearl earrings. She carried a gym bag.

She was on her way to work on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center North Tower.

"She said, `Bye, Mom,'" says Ashley, 61, putting on a black trench coat that used to belong to Janice, before heading to the Ground Zero memorial. "Then she was gone."

On the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ashley does not know whether the day will bring her to tears. She does not know whether it will be easier than every other year she has gone to Ground Zero. Each time, it was clear and sunny, as it was on that horrible day. On this morning, Ashley is happy for the rain.

This likely will be the last time families mourn inside the pit where the towers crumbled. It is a construction site now, and city officials say it will be too dangerous to visit next year. Officials decided to hold this year's memorial service in a nearby park instead of at Ground Zero, allowing families to descend into the pit to pay tribute throughout the day.

In recent weeks, the media and public talked of cutting future remembrances short, scaling back the onslaught of public memorials, getting over it. WABC-TV had planned not to broadcast the reading of all the victims' names this year, but decided against that idea after families protested.

Ashley knows all of this. She understands the public's desire to move on. But she is also terrified that people will forget that day, forget Janice. She has made it her responsibility to ensure that does not happen.

She steps into the rain, wearing a black beret and a silver bracelet on her left wrist with the inscription "Janice Ashley WTC." It is a 45-minute train ride to Manhattan from her home in Rockville Centre, N.Y. She opens her umbrella. Her husband, Rich, is still sleeping. He has never gone to the Ground Zero memorial. It is still too hard for him.

"There are people who aren't ready," Ashley says. "Even after six years."

The ceremony is under way when Ashley arrives at One Liberty Plaza at 9:40 a.m. The air is hot and sticky. At 5 feet tall, she zips through the crowd with ease. She flashes her identification that proves she is a 9/11 victim's family member. A guard waves her through.

Firefighters and first responders stand in uniform on a stage reading the victims' names. Ashley walks past the family members wearing ponchos, hugging each other and sobbing. She ignores the bright glow from media crews' lights and cameras. She does not stop to listen for her daughter's name. She does not need to. It is visiting the pit that matters.

She follows a trail of mourners entering a path blocked off by a guard rail. Along the way, volunteers pass out tiny packets of tissues, water bottles and roses from baskets. Ashley takes tissues and three roses, white, red and pink, for Ashley, her husband and her son.

She pulls a note from her purse with a photo of her daughter. It reads: "Janice, you are forever loved." She ties it around the stems of the roses with a gold string.

Ashley looks around and notices there are fewer mourners than in past years. She remembers the first anniversary at Ground Zero. She was there with her niece, Allison Ashley, 28, and Janice's boyfriend.

She has attended every one since then by herself. Her son, Michael, 24, who was a freshman in college when his sister died, has not been to Ground Zero either.

People talk of moving on now, Ashley says, but what about the families who have not had a chance to bury their dead? Janice's remains arrived back in Rockville Centre three years after she died. She was buried in August 2005.

She would be 31 now, Ashley thinks. Married, probably, and she would own an apartment. She might have had kids already, or maybe she would have put her career first.

"She would be enjoying life," Ashley says with a pink-lipstick smile, revealing the layers of laugh lines she has earned. Her hazel eyes are misty.

"Yeah," she says, "my baby."

Erika Hayasaki writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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