Additional reporting by Clifford Michel
While the physical damage of the World Trade Center attacks was concentrated in Lower Manhattan, much of the emotional fallout of the over 2,600 deaths reverberated miles away in the neighborhoods where the victims had lived.
Some parts of the city felt that pain particularly acutely. On Staten Island, 274 residents were killed, including 72 people who resided within two adjacent ZIP codes, 10312 and 10314.
The island has long been known as a blue-collar borough, home to first responders and office workers who enjoyed a quick commute to Lower Manhattan by the ferry.
“For Staten Island, 9/11 is a visceral part of our historical record,” said City Councilmember Joe Borelli, who was a 19-year-old Marist College student on Sept. 11, 2001.
In the 20 years since, dozens of streets have been named for those who died in the terror attacks. Borelli hears the names of the lost mentioned all the time.
“I can’t tell you how many birthday parties I go to where someone says, their grandfather or their uncle should be here,” he said.
“It’s just a part of who we are now. It’s ingrained in our DNA.”
‘The Best of People’
For many borough residents, the ongoing theme since that day has been the ways their community stepped up.
“In the worst of times, we are the best of people,” said Dennis McKeon, who helped form the WTC Outreach Committee at St. Clare’s Church, which lost 29 members.
Volunteers first helped with immediate needs, like getting the medical examiner’s office phone number and connecting people with the Red Cross. They also arranged weekly meetings where families could simply grieve with one another.
“We put people into a situation where they knew they could say anything they wanted to say because they were with other people going through the same thing,” said McKeon, who ended up leading the group based at the Great Kills church.
Within a few months, the church group became a nonprofit organization called Where To Turn, which focuses on all types of disaster-relief and community service. The name stemmed from what McKeon heard from those families at the first meeting.
“When the family members came to the first meeting they said they came because they didn’t know where to turn,” said McKeon, 64.
He still is available for calls from families, and arranges bus transportation to Lower Manhattan on the anniversary of 9/11. As the years have gone on, that initial pace has diminished, he said. In 2002, he chartered 16 buses, but now it’s just one.
McKeon said he’ll keep helping the 9/11 families as long as they need him.
“Staten Islanders are always available, all you need to provide them with an opportunity and they show up,” he said.
‘We Made a Promise’
Along a triangle of land bounded by Hylan Boulevard and Fingerboard Road is a memorial known as Angels’ Circle, where the faces of hundreds of victims of the terror attacks are on display.
It’s been a 20-year project for Wendy Pellegrino, who was glued to her television in Grasmere in the hours following the attacks.
“I remember watching the triage being set up with the doctors and everybody waiting for them to recover people and bodies, and nobody was brought back,” she said.
“Oh my God,” she thought. “Everybody’s gone.’”
That night, unable to sleep, she grabbed some candles and made a sign that said “God Bless Our Heroes,” and laid it all out on the empty piece of land across the street from her house.
The next day, she found someone had placed a photo of Michael Cammaratta on a popsicle stick and stuck it in the grass. Cammaratta, just 22 years old, was the youngest firefighter to die on 9/11.
The memorial grew from there as she added photos of Staten Island residents and others who died. One mother requested her son face the street so she could see him every morning as she drove to the Verrazano Bridge.
“They just needed to see them,” Pellegrino, now 72, said.
“They went to work, they never came back, they couldn’t find them, and for some reason I felt they needed a place to find their loved ones.”
Pellegrino moved to New Jersey a decade ago but still maintains the greenspace, which she adopted from the Parks Department and now has images of hundreds of 9/11 victims amid angel statues and candles.
It’s the sense of community on Staten Island that keeps her coming back, she said. She decorates the memorial for holidays. People come to celebrate loved one’s birthdays or place new ornaments or statues nearby.
“We made a promise 20 years ago that we would never forget,” she said.
‘We Are Who We Are’
That promise has been important for those on Staten Island who lost loved ones, like Carol Olsen, whose youngest son Jeffrey, a firefighter, died in the attacks and is in Pellegrino’s memorial. He was 31.
In the days and weeks after Sept. 11, Olsen, 81, said she mostly stayed at home, keeping busy with all of the things that needed to be done, she said.
She learned of a group organized by the FDNY for the parents of those who died.
It was a comfort to speak openly with other people going through similar mourning, she said, even though she mostly dealt with her emotions alone.
“Grief is private,” she said. “Grief is when you’re driving and you would scream because no one would hear you.”
She still found comfort in the small moments, like when the husband of her closest friend, a firefighter who also worked a side job for a butcher, would stop by after his deliveries to check on her.
“The bell would ring, and he’s standing on the porch and he’d say, ‘you OK, Ca?,’” she said.
“And that meant the world.”
Twenty years later, those small moments still matter, she said. And the neighbors are just as important now as they were in the months after 9/11. Olsen flies the Flag of Heroes from her house every anniversary, and so does a neighbor, who is like family to her.
“My neighbors never lose sight that it is 9/11, we are who we are,” she said. “That never gets ignored.”