This is a tribute to Nina, who was 15 months at the time of her daddy’s untimely death, and to her mother Evan. This is the story of how our lives intersected at an unforgettable time.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center, I went to NYC to volunteer at the Family Assistance Center (FAC):
The FAC had six different security points where everyone's belongings were searched, and identification was confirmed. I reached the final checkpoint which was located right outside the front door; they checked for my name on the volunteer list, but it wasn't there! I was stunned. They could not grant me access even though I knew the name of the supervisor and the organization where I had been asked to work. My beseeching only resulted in attracting the attention of a stalwart marine who discreetly tapped his sidearm making it clear to me that anyone who was there without the proper credentials would have to leave immediately. As I turned to walk away, I prayed. I couldn't believe I was turned away at the final checkpoint and didn’t know what to do but comply. Just then I looked up and saw a police officer walking toward me. Candidly I voiced what I was thinking, "Can you believe I came all the way from Atlanta to help and got turned away?" He thoughtfully asked what I was doing there and why I was trying to get into the FAC, so I briefly explained my situation. When he heard the name of the lady who was to be my supervisor, he enthusiastically replied, "Oh, I know her! I will go in and see if I can get her to get you on the list. Wait here." The officer re-emerged a few minutes later with a woman in tow and waved for me to come back up to the final checkpoint. Within a few minutes I was welcomed into the FAC! I was so excited and thankful to see how quickly God had worked on my behalf!
Once inside, the demeanor of the formidable marine surprisingly morphed into a very hospitable young man with an appreciation for lively humor. I was briefly shown around by the lady who vouched for me. The FAC was located in a huge convention center and every conceivable type of assistance had been set-up to help the victims. Services ranging from insurance to FEMA, mental, emotional and spiritual counseling centers, medical services, childcare, auto services, employment centers, and so much more. Each booth was staffed to help the victims and their families. I had never seen anything like this highly organized facility. The sheer magnitude of it all was overwhelming. On all the walls and at the tables, were cards, letters and flowers which people from all around the world had sent for the families. There were whole murals that children had colored or painted, and they were all on display. Free telephones, computer services, television, couches and chairs had been provided for the families use and comfort. Three hot meals were served daily, but there was always food available for them.
Food and drinks were also supplied for the police, firefighters, emergency response teams, and for all the workers and volunteers there. A separate area for these servants of the people had been set up where they could eat, talk to each other, and make personal calls, check emails and rest in private away from everyone else.
At this point it had already been 11 days since the attacks and tension was very high inside the facility where the families were concerned. Even though there was a great deal of publicity about all the money that had been pouring in from around the world to help them, it had yet to be released for us to distribute to the families of victims. All the workers and volunteers were acutely sensitive to the fragile state of the victims and their families, but our hands were tied. Normally, benefit money would only be given to injured victims or to the families of the confirmed deceased; however, the attacks did not produce a lot of injured victims or bodies. Without bodies to identify, death certificates could not be issued, and this certificate was what was required to get benefit monies.
Because of the special circumstances, an emergency meeting was held by the people in charge to determine the criteria for giving out financial aid. This was to include people who had directly lost their housing or jobs at Ground Zero. They also had to draft the necessary forms for us to fill out with the families. It was decided that a death certificate could be issued if a family member had proof that their loved one was in the WTC; though some distraught family members felt that if they did this they were, in effect, giving up on ever finding their loved one alive. If they would not fill out the form, there was nothing we could do to help them – other than offer the comforts of the FAC.
Since I had little else to do while the forms were being drawn up, it seemed prudent to get acquainted with the other services available. As I walked around, I came face-to-face with Michael Beckett. I was astonished! We had only met two nights before at Faith Exchange Fellowship where he had been invited by Pastor Dan Stratton to address the congregation. I had spoken with him briefly after the service to thank him for his encouraging and insightful message. Michael was a chaplain with Christian Disaster Response (CDR) and they had a booth in the FAC. Seeing someone I knew in this giant hall in New York City was astonishing to me! We visited for some time, and he was tremendously helpful in coaching me as to what to expect while working there as well as when I returned home. I learned that he and his wife had worked diligently to serve victims who have suffered disasters and to prepare the church to be ready to minister to hurting people in times of crisis.
When we received news that the funds were released, the team made a game plan and quickly went to work. Many people qualified for assistance and I was able to allocate desperately needed finances to some of them. They were all grateful for the help, as was evident by the change of their countenance. I was honored to release funds to these heartbroken people; however, my world was about to be rocked in a very personal way. My supervisor asked if I would be willing to fill out a death certificate, and she assured me that she would help if I needed it. I had been given no instruction how to do this, but everyone who had been previously trained to fill out this legal document was unavailable. She said it was this woman’s third trip to the FAC and hated for her to wait. I prayed asking the Lord to help me, and then told her I would do it. She gave me a quick lesson then called the young widow.
A tall, young, blond woman came with her mother. I invited them to sit at the table with me and explained I was a volunteer. I reassured them that we were going to get through the necessary paperwork together and get her the help she needed. They were both thankful for my assistance. They explained that they had come to the FAC several times, but didn’t have the required paperwork to fill out a death certificate. She told me that her husband was a carpenter who had been dispatched to install furniture on the 82nd floor of the #2 WTC South Tower that fateful morning. For days she had waited by the phone hoping to hear from him. He never called. It was clear she had gotten very little sleep since the tower's collapse on September 11th. She held the work order from her husband's employer along with all the other documentation she needed. The young woman and her husband had a 15-month-old daughter who was at the FAC in the daycare area with her grandpa. The young widow's parents had accompanied her there, but her dad had graciously offered to sit with the baby. The woman's mother sat at the table with us in a daze and offered help when she could but was really in a state of shock. I know she would have done anything to take away her daughter's grief, but it was clear that she herself was having difficulty coping.
After we finished the very difficult and distressing job of filling out the mountain of paperwork, I was able to hand her a check. What had seemed so wonderful earlier for those who had lost their jobs and housing, now seemed insignificant in the looming shadow of her loss. Her husband was gone. As I handed her that check, it seemed as though I was pouring an ounce of kindness in an ocean of grief. I apologized for not being able to do more; fortunately, the financial assistance did serve to encourage the young widow. She was clearly grateful.
When she turned to leave, she looked back at me and asked if I would like to meet her baby daughter. Her mother perked up at my invitation to see her granddaughter, and before I had time to really consider what this meant, I had already answered with an enthusiastic, "Yes, I'd love to meet her." As we sojourned through the FAC to where the daycare was located, I knew I was about to see a little girl whose daddy was just declared deceased. I couldn’t help but think of her daughter's future – what did all this mean for her? Thoughts of this woman and her fatherless child began to flood my mind and tragedy of it overwhelmed me. Not only did this woman, who I had been sitting with face-to-face for nearly two hours, have a long road of heartache to navigate, but I knew this little child had a difficult future ahead of her. It was not just about her father dying - though that was rough enough in its own right – it was that she would have to face the whirlwind of discussions and the political debates and leveraging that surrounded the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A myriad of scenarios came to my mind, one thing was for certain - she would have to live her life without her daddy. He too would not see her grow up, nor would he be there to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day. All their birthday parties would be missing one important guest. The same man whose death certificate I had just filled out. Grief was hitting me in waves and the closer we came to the little girl the more acutely aware I was that I really did not want to see her! I was unsure if I could trust my emotions at that point. I was feeling the anguish of this young widow's situation in a profound way. She interrupted my thoughts when she called out to an older gentleman. He had a small child on his knee playing with his fingers. The man turned and looked very relieved to see his daughter and wife standing there. They introduced me and he happily lifted the baby girl for me to see. She was adorable. She was clueless as to what this moment of time meant for her life. I thought my heart was going to come out of my chest it hurt so badly for them. As they were leaving, I could hardly talk but told them I would be praying for them. They thanked me and we said our goodbyes. On the outside I may have looked all right, but inside I was shaken to my core.
While at the FAC I filled out many forms to help people who had lost income, property or housing, but that was the only death certificate I filled out. Time has not erased the face of that young widow or her little girl from my memory, nor will their names leave me. I see that as the hand of God. If I had filled out a lot of death certificates, maybe their stories would have begun to run together and the details blur. This family's story is but one in thousands, yet in my heart this young widow and her fatherless daughter will not be overshadowed by the vastness of it all. Rest in peace Mauricio Gonzalez.