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9/11 Victims’ Family Members Write Memories, Sorrows in ‘The Legacy Letters’

September 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
If people who lost a family member on 9/11 wrote letters to their deceased loved ones about their lives today, their sorrow and their hopes, what would they say? Jeffrey Brown reports on a new collection titled, "The Legacy Letters," which offered victims' family members just that opportunity.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’ll be using pieces of the quilt to introduce different stories throughout our broadcast tonight. Our first looks at those most directly affected by 9/11, the family members who lost loved ones at the World Trade Center, on Flight 93 and at the Pentagon.

Ten years later, how are they doing? And what, if they could, would they say to their child, spouse, or parent about their lives today?

A new collection titled “The Legacy Letters” offered just that chance. Two hundred family members wrote letters. And recently, we visited three of them in the New York area.

JOE DIFAZIO: Dad, I guess it makes the most sense to start at the end. The last time I saw you, you had a triple stack of powdered donut piled on top of a belly that looked use to that sort of thing. Confectioner sugar dusted your lips, and every time the Giants’ defense missed a tackle, you pounded a chubby fist into the couch and left a phantom smudge. You were barely 5’10”, bald and out of shape. I looked at you and saw the strongest man in the world.

The last thing I remember is getting sent up to bed. Giants were losing, getting blown out actually, I think. And so, he said, time for bed. I couldn’t question him. And then that was it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joe DiFazio was 14 when his father Vincent died while working in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Vincent, a stockbroker at Cantor Fitzgerald, was 43. He left behind wife Patty and daughters Gina and Dana, as well as Joe, the oldest.

Ten years later, Joe is a recent Boston College graduate and hopes to become a writer. And his skill comes through in his letter, where he remembers a father who took him to see the Yankees in the World Series and coached his Little League teams.

So when you sat down 10 years later to write this, what was it that you most wanted to tell him or to convey to him?

JOEY DIFAZIO: I wanted him to know that I was doing all right and that he should be proud of the job that he did being a father while he had the chance to do it. I know that he had reservations about spending so much time in Manhattan, and if you could see the list of — pile of speeding tickets that he had from racing back from the city to get to the Little League field or the get to my games.

So, I just — I want him to know, and I try to get across in that letter that whatever he thought of what kind of father he was being, I thought he was the greatest.

I spend hours lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, talking to your memory in the dark. I ask for help when I’m confused, for strength when I’m scared and for comfort when I’m upset. I wonder how it was just at the end, if you were afraid, if there was pain. You never answer, and that’s OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: Most of all, Joe writes, his dad taught him to be a man and to take care of his mom and sisters.

JOEY DIFAZIO: I just cherish those relationships, just appreciate my life more than I did before. I see a lot of my friends and even some of my family members, and the relationships they have that they either neglect or they don’t really appreciate, or they are constantly fighting about things that are really nonsense — you don’t know when what you just said could be the last thing that that person hears.

MICHELE BEDIGIAN: Dear Carl, it’s been almost ten years since your death, and in that time, I’ve worked so hard at trying to understand what has happened to the life I dreamt of as a little girl.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michele Bedigian spent seven years and the last 11 months in marriage with Carl, a New York City firefighter who spent most of his career with Engine Company 214 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Carl and four others from his firehouse lost their lives at the World Trade Center. At 35, he had touched many lives, some 2,000 people attended his funeral.

MICHELE BEDIGIAN: People came up to me and shared with me how much he knew about them and how close they were. It was kind of startling because I had no idea that all of these people considered him so close to heart. Someone could be speaking to him about how to bake a cookie, and for him, at that moment, that was the most important conversation. And people felt it.

JEFFREY BROWN: To Michele, Carl was a kind of superhero, but one who loved to cook and collect hallmark Christmas light ornaments.

MICHELE BEDIGIAN: Here he is fighting fires and looking really at the destruction of life, and he comes home and all he wants to do is play with his hallmark ornaments.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michele says Carl taught her something that has allowed her to go on in life, not to hold on to anger and sorrow, to choose happiness, and that’s what she did.

In 2006, she married Chris. This summer, she gave birth to their son Oliver. It’s a new life but one that Carl remains part of.

MICHELE BEDIGIAN: I’m thinking about the dream I had of you about a month ago, or maybe it was a visit. Nonetheless, what you said was a gift I’ll treasure forever.

The future is beautiful and I’m right here with you. Go make a life for us all. Choose happy and I love you.

JEFFREY BROWN: As for the rest of us, Michele believes we too have a choice after 9/11.

MICHELE BEDIGIAN: I think we need to learn tolerance. I think we’re far from it. If there’s anything positive to come out of it is that we recognize what intolerance does and how destructive it can be.

BARBARA JACKMAN: Dearest Brooke, I can hardly believe that ten years have passed without having you in our lives. We have had two additions to our family. You would love your two little nieces Blake Ava (ph) and Elle Olivia (ph). I talk about your beautiful brown eyes, your dancing smile, your great sense of style, your courage, your determination and your tremendous heart.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the first six months after the 9/11 attack, Barbara Jackman found it difficult to speak, in terrible grief at the loss of her 23-year-old daughter Brooke. Ten years later, we met her at her Long Island home with son Ross and daughter Erin.

BARBARA JACKMAN: Brooke was never without a book. When she would get off the school bus, I remember being told she was walking across the street reading the book. Please tell her not to. She would walk down the city streets always with her backpack filled with a — filed with books and a water bottle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brooke had worked for several months at a brokerage house in the Twin Towers, but she decided that life wasn’t for her. She wanted to be a social worker instead.

BARBARA JACKMAN: She wanted to work with children. And the night before, September 10th, she had called me about 10:00 at night and said to me, “there’s more to life than making money.”

JEFFREY BROWN: The very next morning, trapped after the planes hit the towers, Brooke’s call to her parents’ answering machine was one of the last messages out.

BROOKE JACKMAN: Mom, it’s Brooke. It’s 9:15, and I was hoping mommy would be home. I’m OK. I love you guys.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, it’s used in a public service announcement for the Brooke Jackman Foundation, established by her family. The organization, run by Erin, offers after-school literacy programs and has distributed 100,000 free books and 10,000 Brook Packs filled with school supplies to at-risk children around New York.

BARBARA JACKMAN: We have to have something positive to come out of this horrendous act.

JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier this year, Barbara Jackman’s husband Robert died. In 2008, he read out the names of the dead at ground zero.

ROBERT JACKMAN: And my beautiful daughter Brooke Alexandria Jackman….

JEFFREY BROWN: Barbara told us that she had never before felt able to participate, but she requested a role for the tenth anniversary, worrying this might be a last chance.

You mean, we’re reaching 10 years. So, that’s sort of a milestone, and after that you’re worried whether people are interested?

BARBARA JACKMAN: Will the country remember? Will people remember? I don’t know. We tend to forget.

JEFFREY BROWN: On this day at least, the world did remember.

BARBARA JACKMAN: And my daughter Brooke Alexandra Jackman, there’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think of you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Barbara Jackman was at ground zero to honor the names of her daughter and other victims.