The big chill

On Sept. 11, the fiancées and partners of many who died suffered a double loss. Lacking the legal status of spouses, they were denied public legitimacy and, in some cases, the support of a loved one's family.

Published September 10, 2002 7:22PM (EDT)

Theresa Lanzisero was one month away from marrying Tommy Casoria, a firefighter, when he died at the World Trade Center. Her engagement ring is one of the few tangible mementos she has of her man. Beyond that, there are a lot of memories -- his Robert De Niro impersonation, the number on his softball jersey (22, same as his engine number), the Blues Brothers skit he performed with his brother at their engagement party. "Tommy did a split," she says. "And he's a big boy, not very light on his feet."

What Lanzisero doesn't have is one of the few remnants of her relationship to Casoria she thought she would never lose -- his family. When she approached them with the idea of officially adopting Tommy's surname, his father, she says, told her bluntly that she did not deserve the family name. She found herself increasingly excluded from what remained of Tommy's world. And when he was honored at a special ceremony at Ground Zero, she was not even informed. Instead, she read about it in a local paper the next day.

"I don't know what happened," she says. "Everybody was running around having a ball three weeks earlier. We were having parties, everything was fine, everything was happy, we were part of each other's world.

"Now, it's as if I died in the World Trade Center too," she says. "I lost some of my life, I lost my future, I lost everything."

Across the city, women and men who were engaged to or living with victims of the Sept. 11 attacks find themselves in the same painful limbo. While spouses are legally classed as next of kin, the fiancées and lovers have no legal connection to their loved ones' families. And in many cases, they find the families uninterested in maintaining ties, a rebuke that they feel denies them legitimacy. "My whole life with his family for the last six years, was that a façade?" asks Lanzisero. "Were they just putting on an act for him because he loved me so much?"

Grief is a complex psychology, and there are probably half a dozen answers to the question, but for many of these survivors, the explanation for the sudden estrangement seems clear enough: money. And, of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks, it was the 343 fallen firefighters, designated as heroes, who became the focus of a national outpouring of donations in the weeks after Sept. 11.

The selective generosity of the public created a bitter debate among the victims' families, and was characterized in a blistering satire by cartoonist Ted Rall in the Village Voice. Girlfriends and fiancées of firefighters, unrecognized by law (New York makes no provision for common law marriage), looked on from the sidelines as money flowed, many of them suspecting that their fiancés' families had frozen them out to avoid having to share the wealth.

Many of these women had shared mortgages and joint bank accounts with the men who died. In all cases they are trying to get by on one income where previously they were able to depend on two. Most of them, however, say money is not the issue; it's the sense of illegitimacy that rankles.

"Not having a marriage certificate has affected every aspect of my life now," says Gina Penos, who called her fiancé, Jimmy Pappageorge, the morning of Sept. 11 to tell him she was pregnant, only to find that he had just left the firehouse for the World Trade Center towers. "From not getting the financial support that a widow would receive, to finding myself taking a backseat in everything.

"All of a sudden I feel that that the past eight years with this man doesn't count," she continues. "My opinion doesn't count, I don't have the ability to make any decisions that relate to him, and on top of that I'm grieving for the loss of my future, for the loss of my child's father, for the loss of my husband. It's just hard that certain people can't see what our relationship meant. It feels like I don't exist anymore."

Lanzisero was driving to work on Long Island when a DJ on the radio began screaming that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. She thought it was a joke and called Tommy to see if knew anything. He was preparing to relocate to a firehouse nearer the scene, but told her to relax. It was just after nine in the morning -- Theresa had spoken to Tommy for the last time. Later, like so many others, she would scrupulously reconstruct the last minutes of his life: He was among a small group of men helping a paraplegic down a stairwell; his radio transmission gave out on the fifth floor. What she needed to know was that he didn't die alone.

Teri Seier was at home when a friend called and told her to turn on the television. As soon as she did she called her fiancé, Billy Burke Jr., at his firehouse, but it was too late. He'd already left. She tried his cell phone and left a message asking him to give her a call as soon as possible. Then she went to the grocery store to get some water and basic provisions. In retrospect her sense of calm would seem bizarrely misplaced. "I was thinking that we should stock up if we were being attacked," she recalls. "I didn't think he was gone at all. I thought he was unbreakable, that nothing could happen to Billy."

Penos said goodbye to Jimmy that morning as usual, but would remember for a long time afterward the way he held her gaze a little longer than normal. When she asked why he was staring he smiled and said he just wanted to look at her. Then he was gone. Barely an hour later, Penos emerged from the subway to find a crowd staring at TV screens in a shop window. Thinking that the stock market had crashed she was about to move on when she saw that people were actually staring at the north tower, in flames, belching smoke. That was when she tried to call Jimmy, to find out if he was OK, to tell him the news, but he was gone. It would be another 24 hours before she'd receive confirmation that Jimmy was on the missing persons list.

The three women, along with 18 others in similiar circumstances, were brought together by Dianne Kane, a therapist with the New York Fire Department. None of the women were married (though many were engaged), and for that small distinction they represented an anomaly among the thousands of bereaved. Despite going through the same feelings of grief as the spouses of victims, says Kane, their loss was not acknowledged in the same way. Often they were left feeling they had needed to legitimize their relationship to the world, a feeling expressed by Lanzisero's wanting to take Tommy's name, or Penos' wearing Jimmy's engagement ring.

For the last year, the women have been meeting each week (one group in Manhattan on Tuesdays, another in Queens on Thursdays), to reminisce, console, reflect and rage. There is a lot of crying, but sometimes there is laughter too. What they have in common is what they have lost, and someday they may feel that it's not enough to keep them together. For now, however, it keeps many of them going. They share photos and lobby for the benefits they never received; they talk about death and grieving, and how the dead are barely in their graves before the rest of the world is urging them to forget, to move on, to find other men.

When Seier talks about Billy she remembers his love of the sea, the dreaded cowboy boots that he wore when they met, and the Elvis song he crooned down the phone to her the night before he died. For a long time, she would not change the sheets on their bed, and she still refuses to throw out Billy's toothbrush, his razor, his cowboy boots.

For Penos, recollections of Jimmy include fast, furious rides in his Mustang, watching him play softball with his team, the Barrio Boys, and his big, boyish grin. She wears her engagement ring like a talisman.

Lanzisero turned herself into a walking memorial. On the day I met her -- when Tommy had been missing for six months -- she wore a chain around her neck on which she's suspended one of Tommy's rings. A broach of a winged firefighter was pinned to her lapel. The Guess logo on her handbag had been covered with Tommy's fire badge. At one point she pulled down her sweat pants to show me a tattoo on her backside -- an angel floating above Tommy's fire number -- and for a moment there was a flash of the playful, spirited woman she must have been before Sept. 11.

Lanzisero and Tommy were due to get married on Oct. 13 last year, following a 17-month engagement. More than 300 people had been invited to the wedding. The dress had been made, the honeymoon to Hawaii booked. "I couldn't wait to start a family -- that was what we were going to do," said Theresa. "I'm 30 years old now, and my life is a do-over."

The sense of having to start again is a recurring theme among all the women, as is the complaint that they are expected to start over right now.

Seier dismally recounted being lectured by one of Billy's relatives. "She was fussing at me, telling me I had to move on, had to start dating. It's easy for people to say, but I just can't. I'm not motivated anymore, I don't care about my job, I don't feel good about myself. I sit in my apartment a lot. I like to be alone." Her doctor has suggested it might be a good time to prescribe antidepressants.

But Seier is better off than many of the others in Kane's group. Although they were not engaged, Billy had put her name on his insurance policy with the fire department. He was smart like that, she says. "About three years ago he asked for my social security number and I just laughed, like 'Oh, shut up, nothing's going to happen to you.' She pauses. "But you just never know what's going to happen to you."

She also maintains a good connection with Billy's family and continues to live in his old apartment in Stuyvesant Town, a sprawling estate of tower blocks on the east side of Manhattan. She knows of another bereaved woman living nearby who was asked to leave by her fiancé's family. Seier lives in fear that she may soon be forced out, too. When she locked herself out in June, the security guards refused to let her back in. It transpired that Billy had forgotten to put her name on the key list, and now the owners are threatening to evict her.

Seier cannot bear the idea of leaving, especially since she thrives on the traces of Billy that remain in the apartment. She has kept all his photographs on the wall, and held on to the Chinese takeout containers that he never threw out. Sometimes she opens his sock drawer and tries to reclaim his scent. "He was in my dreams the other night," she says, dissolving into tears. "Sometimes in the dream is the only place you can feel them."

At the support group, says Seier, they go through the same incomprehension each week: "I can't believe this happened, I can't believe that Jeff's gone, I can't believe that Billy's gone, I can't believe that Scott's gone ... We just can't believe it. I can't believe this has happened to me, I can't believe this has happened to Billy, I still think that I'll wake up in the morning and he'll be there."

In the weeks after Sept. 11, Penos channeled her grief into writing a booklet celebrating Jimmy's life. Although they didn't have a body, a service was held for him in December, and only afterward did the full reality begin to sink in. When Jimmy's remains were recovered in April, she says it was like a smack in the face. "All I wanted to do was crawl on top of that stretcher and fall asleep on top of the body bag," she says.

Kane encourages the women to recall the details of their relationships and the depth of their grief, partly to reaffirm the profound connections they had with the men. "The important thing is they don't begin to doubt the validity of their relationship or the intensity of it or the importance of it," says Kane. "In many ways they are the ones who knew and had a day-to-day involvement with the men who have died, and it's the parents or other relations involved who were not always in contact on a regular basis."

Tommy Casoria was buried on Aug. 10 after a service at St. Luke's church in a suburban stretch of Queens. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was there, as was his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani. Hundreds of firefighters lined the street as an engine bearing Tommy's casket inched along, followed by a trio of black limousines carrying his family. Lanzisero pulled up in a separate limo.

In his eulogy, Bloomberg noted that Tommy was a fan of the Blues Brothers; Tommy's brother recalled the private language they adopted from the characters in "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas," and choked back tears. "We were like bookends," he said.

Lanzisero came up, if not by name, in the priest's comments, as he asked the mourners to think of Tommy's last few weeks, as he and his bride-to-be prepared to get married. "Don't you just wish someone would come up and shake you on the shoulder and say, 'Wake up, it's all just a bad dream'?" he asked.

Lanzisero says that something seemed to shift a bit that morning. The tension of living between the public trauma and the private grief lifted. Tommy will be in a place where she can go to be with him whenever she wants. And that morning, for the first time since Sept. 11, she hugged Tommy's father, though not his mother, and spoke to his brother. It was not much, she says, but it was something.

By Aaron Hicklin

Aaron Hicklin is editor in chief of Black Book.

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