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Parkite still grapples with painful memories

by Nan Chalat-Noaker Record Editor
Donna Williams and her family moved from New York to Park City following the Sept. 11 attacks. Photo by Nan Chalat-Noaker/Park Record
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Editor’s note: Most of this interview was conducted via email because Donna Williams wanted to carefully deliberate over her responses to this extremely emotional subject. Part of the interview was also conducted in person.

In August of 2001 Donna Williams and her husband purchased a second home in Deer Valley. The couple and their three young children, who lived in Brooklyn, New York, loved to visit Park City and they figured that the house would also be a good rental property.

According to Williams they had no plans to pull up their roots in New York and move to Utah until after experiencing the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 firsthand.

"For me, life in New York became way too stressful," Williams said, adding that it is still difficult to talk about her memories of that disastrous day.

This year, however, as the 5th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Williams wants to add her voice to those still trying to make sense of the event.

"I used to get depressed and very irritable about a month before the, anniversary. I would disconnect from friends and family and immerse myself in news accountings and TV rehashings. I’ve learned since, that staying connected to people helps and that allowing myself some quiet time for reflection keeps me focused on the future," she explained.

On the morning of the attacks, Williams was going about her normal routine delivering two kids to school with her youngest tagging along.

"We lived in Brooklyn Heights, just a couple blocks from the Promenade Park that overlooks lower Manhattan. My husband was already at work. I had just dropped one of my kids off at school. Another had left for school earlier and I was leaving the school building with my four-year-old in tow when I looked up and saw a massive plume of smoke. Before I had time to complete my thought about what it could be, we heard the impact of the second plane.

"It seems like the city stopped then. Cars stopped, people turned up their radios and got out of their cars. My youngest son and I walked down to the Promenade to see what we all thought was an accident with a small private plane. Hundreds had already gathered including a dozen or so neighborhood moms. I’ll never forget one asking me if I knew where my husband was. I told her I did and that he was in mid-town. I regret that I didn’t return the courtesy of asking about hers who I later learned worked in the building. He actually made it home several hours later to a very thankful and blessed family, but it was months before he could bring himself to cross the Brooklyn Bridge back into Manhattan."

One of the reasons Williams finds it so difficult to talk about the terrorist attacks is because her family was so fortunate. She is keenly aware of those who lost coworkers and family members.

"My experience was far from being as traumatic as it was for so many others, yet I find that no matter where I go, everyone wants to tell their story I worry, however, that as time passes I become a little complacent, so perhaps it is time to open up again.

In her email Williams recalls, "One of our neighbors died. She had three children. In addition, a group of us attended services for several firefighters who served our neighborhood. They were all heartbreaking. The men were all required to form lines outside the churches for those attending to exit. I’ve never seen so many big, burly men openly sobbing while standing at attention."

"I also recall meeting a lot of firefighters from across the country who were sent in to attend the services since most members of the FDNY were working either at their stations or volunteering at Ground Zero or ‘The Pit’ as they called it.

"Our Brooklyn neighborhood lost about 40 firefighters in surrounding houses. I began to work with some neighbors to organize food and other details for their wakes and funeral services. I have some vivid memories of that time. One of the most vivid was meeting a young rookie out in front of his Redhook Station where a friend and I had gone to replace the flowers and candles set there as a memorial by empathetic neighbors. I don’t recall his name, but as we began to talk I asked him to tell me something about each of the men they lost whose photos were displayed out front. He proceeded to tell me the name of seven men and a small vignette or idiosyncrasy about each.

As he began to tell me the name of the seventh man, His voice cracked and he paused. Choking back tears, he explained that this man was not supposed to work that day, but did so as a favor to him (my host). The victim had been married for about a year and had just become a father. I tried to reassure him that it was not his fault but the pain in his face told me that he could not reconcile the events and would forgive himself."

As the media begins to barrage viewers with replays of their coverage five years ago, Williams says she still watches but is careful to step away when it becomes too overwhelming.

"The media coverage was amazing. Even living in N.Y., we were all starved for information to explain what we had witnessed. Most of us were addicted to the daily stories of those who had died. I guess I wanted the information to find perspective. I wanted the human stories to understand the pain and suffering.

"I’m still looking for perspective, and much like the immensity of Hurricane Katrina s wrath, the pain and suffering are too large for one person’s brain to understand and comprehend. I’ve re-channeled those efforts into help out people in my circle of friends and in my community. Park City is a great role model for that."

Since moving to Park City, Williams said she has returned to New York only briefly, until this summer.

"I realized how much I miss it," she said.

As to the controversy surrounding an appropriate memorial, Williams defers to the families of the 2,996 victims of the attacks.

"It would be terribly inappropriate for me to comment on what the memorial should look like. Even though the events were traumatic for my family, I did not lose my husband, son, brother or sister. The debate is endless and will never address how survivors feel from day to day. The grounds are sacred like a church or temple. The grieving is personal. Perhaps the best memorials are the ones already engrained in our hearts and memories of those lost.

"I can’t speak for others, but I know I will honor them by remembering how significant their individual lives were to so many. I’ll remember the housekeeper in my old Brooklyn neighborhood who put her daughter through law school at Georgetown but whose daughter did not come home from work that night.

"I’ll remember the illegal immigrants who were afraid to file for compensation on behalf of their loved ones who died for fear of being deported.

"I’ll remember the firefighter whose voice was so extraordinary that he sang at all the memorial services before 9/11 but there was nobody to sing at his.

"I’ll remember the wife who lost her husband and then lost her father on a subsequent flight that went down in the Far Rockaways on Long Island.

"I’ll remember the quiet strength of one widow who after finding out that we both came from the East Coast, I told all about my experience, as though mine was the most traumatic, only to find out a year later that she was raising three beautiful children on her own because her husband died that day.

Williams says she continues to be profoundly affected by her experiences on Sept. 11, 2001 and in the days that followed.

"The survivors have strength and courage I can only imagine. This woman and other survivors are my heroes. To honor them and others, I will use my vote to insist that our government act with honesty, integrity and humanity, and I will try to do a better job of raising my children to be respectful and tolerant on the playground so they can use those skills as responsible citizens. In short, I will continue to find ways to make my life count."


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