Families flock to 9/11 Memorial to keep memories of their loved ones alive

Dennis Hamill New York Daily News

The families of the 9/11 dead come to Ground Zero every year to keep the memories of their loved ones alive.

Keith Maerz wedged a green oak leaf into one of the engraved letters of the name of his son, Noell Maerz, on the gleaming black granite [sic – bronze] wall and then laid his blue “9/11 family” ribbon beside it.

A leaf marks the name etched by the pools of the South Tower for Noell Maerz. Photo by Joe Marino/New York Daily News

A leaf marks the name etched by the pools of the South Tower for Noell Maerz. Photo by Joe Marino/New York Daily News

Then Keith Maerz took his wife Bette’s hand and they closed tear-glistened eyes and listened to the soft whoosh of the waters of the 9/11 Memorial, waters that give a tireless eerie life to the fallen. Keith and Bette gazed up at the dull Manhattan sky where the planes had roared 14 September 11th mornings ago, one of them crashing into the World Trade Center’s south tower, where their 29-year-old son, Noell, was a broker for Euro Brokers.

“They never found his body,” says Keith Maerz, standing at the footprint fountain of that fallen tower. “So this is our son’s grave. I’m a landscaper, so the oak trees growing here at the memorial are perfect because they are a symbol of strength. We place an oak leaf in our son’s name because he is our mighty oak.”

He stared into whispery waters as Bette said, “We come every year. It brings us closer to our son.”

Noel Maertz at his wedding

Noell Maerz at his wedding

“Noell is in his element here because he loved the water,” says Keith. “We used to fish together back in Pennsylvania or out in Long Beach, where he lived down here. If he wasn’t working or playing sports, he was out on the water. So a watery grave is fitting.”

Bette says that she and Keith were at a flea market in Philadelphia on September 11, 2001.

“We were buying mums for a job Keith was doing,” says Bette.

“Then a friend called me and said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center,” says Keith, gazing up to the new Freedom Tower. “I came to New York to take it by storm to search for my son. I’d always heard New Yorkers were cold and unfeeling. But I met the most caring people I’ve ever met in my life here in this city.”

“When they learned we were family of one of the missing, the construction workers stood at attention, took off their hard hats and saluted us,” Bette said. “I was overwhelmed by their kindness and respect for our son.”

“Today we’ll go up into the new tower so we can see what Noell saw from up there,” said Keith.

In 2001, even as the search for remains at Ground Zero continued, Keith and his second son decided to run in the New York City Marathon in Noell’s honor.

“We had three weeks to train,” Keith said. “But I finished it for Noell, raising money as we do every year for Make-a-Wish and a scholarship in Noell’s name back in Doylestown at Lansdale Catholic High.”

Another 9/11 victim whose body was never found but whose memory will never die was Peggy Connor, the sister of my childhood friend Kevin Burns, who survived a tour in Vietnam only to have his big sister, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee, die in a barbaric act of war in Lower Manhattan.

I think of Peggy’s happy laughter every time I come to this killing ground that has been respectfully transformed into a pulsating shrine to the lives of the lost.

On the other side of the south tower footprint wall, Christine Fisher traced the name of her husband, Gerald P. Fisher, onto a sheet of paper.

“Gerry was killed in the Pentagon that morning,” she says. “He was a contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton and was in the office of Gen. Timothy Maude when that plane crashed into that portion of the building. I was at my job as an interior designer in Maryland, where I’d just received a dozen beautiful roses from my husband because September 10 is my birthday. Then I got the call about the terrorist attack.”

At 8 p.m., a military officer arrived at the Fisher home to say that there were no survivors from that area of the Pentagon.

“Gerry was a wonderful husband for 17 years,” she says. “And just like that, he was gone forever. The sad part is that I know we’re doing all we can to battle terrorism, but the world is still such a scary place.”

Just ask Alyssa Fuller, 26, of Boston, who stood at St. Paul’s Church across from Ground Zero on Friday remembering the dead and maimed of the Boston Marathon bombing as a priest struck five loud, clear bells at 8:46 a.m., the time of the first 9/11 plane strike.

“I was on Boylston St. in Boston immediately after the bombing,” says Fuller, wiping tears after the annual St. Paul’s service. “I came to New York this year with a group of survivors for the 9/11 remembrance. We are going to plant a Boston tree inside the 9/11 Memorial. You need services like this where you can commiserate with others who know and feel and understand the loss.”

Inside the memorial across Church St., Mayor de Blasio stood along his two City Hall predecessors, Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, for the service. Gov. Cuomo was joined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, along with ex-New York Gov. George Pataki.

Out on Church St., the never-ending river of people that is the city of New York flowed uptown and downtown, many pausing to pay silent respects for fellow New Yorkers who will not soon be forgotten.

A sign on a periodical box on the corner of West and Vesey Sts. reads: “Life After Death: Is It Possible?”

In New York City it sure is.

“I used to want to be buried under an oak tree,” Keith Maerz said, touching his son’s name like a man feeling a throbbing pulse. “Not anymore. Now I want to be cremated and have half my ashes scattered in the ocean and the other half in this pool where I will be reunited with my son Noell, who is my mighty oak.”

Then Keith and Bette Maerz walked hand-in-hand down the pathway lined with young oak trees to hear their son’s name read along with 3,000 others in this living, breathing place of remembrance.


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