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Ali Rogin returns to Middletown, a New Jersey town where she grew up that was disproportionately affected by the 9/11 attacks in 2001, to see how residents and neighbors coped over the past two decades.
Now let's turn to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which we are marking all week.
Tonight, we do that in two parts, beginning with the many ways that lives were impacted in a New Jersey town, a place that was disproportionately affected back in 2001.
Ali Rogin returns to Middletown, where she grew up, to see how residents and neighbors coped over the past two decades.
Middletown, New Jersey, a suburb about an hour's train ride from Manhattan, it's a community that was deeply affected by 9/11. It also happens to be my hometown.
So I returned a few weeks before the twentieth anniversary of the terror attacks to see how people have moved forward, even as they look back. First stop, a scenic overlook that's now home to the county's 9/11 monument, an eagle clutching a beam salvaged from Ground Zero.
I'm here at Mount Mitchill in Atlantic Highlands, which happens to be the highest point on the Atlantic Seaboard. People come up here to admire the sweeping views of the New York City skyline. But on September 11, 2001, many people, my own family included, came up here to bear witness to the horror that was unfolding across the river.
Jodi Molisani, Widow of Justin "Jude" Molisani: It's very difficult to convey the chaos that ensued, the disbelief, the fear.
Jodi Molisani was my fourth grade teacher.
I can remember being on my driveway days after and smelling the smoke from Ground Zero.
One hundred and forty-seven county residents died that day, their names inscribed on the monument's base; 37 were from Middletown, the most of any municipality outside of New York City.
I had the television on. He had called me twice that morning.
Molisani's husband, Jude, worked for the financial firm Euro Brokers, on the 84th floor of the South Tower.
He was crying. And he said: "I'm watching people jump out of the North Tower."
And that's when I panicked. And I said: "Get out of there. Come home."
He said, "OK," hung up the phone. I looked at the television and that's when the second plane hit. So, I knew right then and there that he wasn't coming home.
Jude Molisani's body was recovered quickly. Months later, some personal effects surfaced, including his account card for the car service he used.
This was in his wallet, which was in his desk, and this was recovered at Fresh Kills Landfill.
More importantly, his wedding ring.
It's incredible how you can see the half of it that's kept its shape and the half that was misshapen.
We know that he was thrown from the building because he was found on the ground. He was the 13th body recovered. And that is just illustrative of what he physically went through.
It took 20 years to be able to be very matter-of-fact about things. And now, when I think of him, I'm good.
Matthew Casey, Son of Kathleen Casey: You know I went to work with grandma Kathy one time?
Rode the train.
Yes. And she worked in a really tall building.
Matthew Casey, an engineer married to my kindergarten classmate Elise (ph), has no artifacts from Ground Zero, but he does have his daughter, Kate, named after his mother, Kathleen, who was killed in the South Tower.
She ran the equities trading desk at Sandler O'Neill.
You had to be strong to work on Wall Street, especially as a female back then. And she took her career very seriously.
But his memories are of a loving mother who would do anything for her only child. Just 14 when she died, Casey has worked long and hard at learning to live with his grief.
The pain, pain doesn't go away. It's just a different kind of pain.
Casey often seeks solace in Middletown's Memorial Gardens, where each victim has a stone.
It's peaceful. I feel her presence there. And if I just need a place to go to talk to her, I find that's the best place.
The gardens are right next to the train station, which many of the victims used to get to work. Today, the trains rush by, as always, but steps away is an oasis, a reminder that people here live in the present, but never forget the past.
Along the walkway, friends and family members leave mementos. Engraved inscriptions tell a story of who their loved ones were.
"Her love was boundless, her laughter contagious, her generosity legendary, and her friendship a precious gift." Those four lines are — that's who my mom was.
The gardens are a living memorial. Opened in 2003, they have been expanding ever since. This year, they're adding a monument to first responders, many of whom suffered health complications due to exposure at Ground Zero.
Tony Perry is Middletown's mayor.
Tony Perry, Mayor of Middletown, New Jersey: This memorial is growing because the wounds of 9/11 are never going to fully heal, but this community has embraced the families the day that those tragic attacks occurred. And, 20 years later, it still holds firm.
For some, staying in this community was more painful than comforting.
Kristen Breitweiser, Widow of Ron Breitweiser: I left Middletown because it was just too much of a reminder every day of what was so missing in my life and my daughter's life.
Kristen Breitweiser's husband, Ron, was a senior vice president at Fiduciary Trust. He died in the South Tower on 9/11. She and her daughter moved to New York years ago.
I wanted Caroline to not sort of be walled in by all of the horror. She nearly made it through high school without anyone ever knowing that her dad was killed on September 11.
But her goal was not to forget the events of that day. Rather, Breitweiser, a lawyer, became immersed in them.
The reality was, my husband left for work one morning and never came home, and I just assumed that the government would give me answers.
And so, when we received so much resistance from at that time the Bush administration, we started doing our own research. We learned that our intelligence agencies were clearly following the hijackers. They had every bit of information that they needed to stop the 9/11 attacks. And, for whatever reason, the 9/11 attacks weren't stopped, and 3,000 people were murdered in broad daylight.
Breitweiser was one of the so-called Jersey Girls, four widows who kept the pressure on Congress. They helped make the case for the 9/11 Commission, which in 2004 concluded that there had been — quote — "failures of imagination" across the government.
But Breitweiser thinks those lessons remain unlearned.
We went into several wars based on 9/11. We have scaled back privacy rights, constitutional rights of Americans based on 9/11. We tortured. We extrajudicially killed. We had renditions, all based on 9/11.
In your mind, what has it all amounted to?
I think it's just created more of a morass on the backs of my dead husband and others.
Breitweiser will recognize the 20th anniversary quietly, as usual.
I have never gone to a memorial service. I kind of like to keep that date private for Caroline and me.
Back in Middletown, officials are planning a larger-than usual ceremony.
I have the easy job of remembering and ensuring that our community remembers. But I have a 1-year-old daughter. She doesn't know any of this.
For Molisani, who still teaches fourth grade, educating the next generation about 9/11 is complicated.
The children always have a lot of questions about what happened that day. And where were you, Mrs. Molisani? And I'm very candid in saying that I was at home. But, at that point, that's where I stop the discussion.
What do you hope other people who may not have a personal connection to 9/11 remember on this 20th anniversary?
How our nation came together, and how we were kind to each other, and how there was no political party that you were affiliated with? Everybody was just an American.
A reminder that you don't need to be from Middletown, New Jersey, or any town that lost lives on September 11 to honor the people and the places that did.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ali Rogin in Middletown, New Jersey.
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Ali Rogin is a correspondent for PBS News Weekend and a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
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