Europe
Scottish voters reject independence from Britain

Time and healing

Human InterestUnrest, Conflicts and WarLaws and LegislationTravelAir Transportation IndustryAmerican AirlinesDefense

A lawyer who took a 70 percent pay cut to move across the country and coach gymnastics. A publishing executive inspired by his oldest daughter to become an ordained pastor and adopt. A naval commander who wrote eloquently about the price of freedom after losing two comrades.

These are just a few from the Chicago area whose lives ended on Sept. 11, 2001.

And these are just a few of the lives they left behind:

A single mother of six who adopted her two youngest after her husband was gone. A family who recognized the kindness from strangers and helped give their hometown a place to mourn. A mother who has started a new life in a new place, just like her daughter had begun to do that fateful day.

Forced into an abyss a decade ago with thousands of others, those who lost loved ones or barely escaped have grieved, grown and persevered in the shadows of the terrorist attacks. They have devoted their lives to preserving memories, carrying on legacies and completing unfinished tasks for nearly 3,000 people who didn't have the chance.

'I know they meant well'

The only thing Jeff Mladenik asked his wife, Sue, to do when leaving their Hinsdale home was to take care of their 4-year-old daughter, Grace, who recently had been adopted from China.

The couple had been working on the adoption of a second daughter they already had named Hannah when Jeff Mladenik's plane, American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles, crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

When the adoption agency called Sue Mladenik to ask her what she planned to do, she turned the question on them. How would they help get their daughter home?

Hannah Mladenik arrived in Hinsdale less than a year later. Two years after that, 2-year-old Bethany left China to join the family too.

Since the terrorist attacks, Mladenik has devoted her life to helping her three biological children heal and to raising her three youngest daughters from China as a single mother.

Seeking to do that in peace, she built a new home in Sugar Grove.

"I didn't want people coming up to me and my girls telling me how sorry they were and how they prayed for me," said Mladenik, 53. "I know they meant well, but my kids aren't deaf. I just wanted to go somewhere where nobody really knew who we were."

Mladenik declined the victim's compensation fund and sued American Airlines for not locking their cockpits and for endangering her husband. That settlement and her husband's life insurance policy have enabled her family to live comfortably and to donate money in her husband's name to the orphanages where her youngest daughters spent their early years.

Though Jeff Mladenik worked full time as a publishing executive, he also served as a pastor at Christ Church of Oak Brook.

But keeping faith has been a struggle, Sue Mladenik said. "How could God let this happen to so many innocent people?" she said.

She has discovered God's grace through her children. After a rocky journey, two have graduated from college. One has married and given her a grandchild. Meanwhile, her three youngest children have given her new purpose.

"My older kids struggled. … I was such a wreck. I honestly thought they would be better off without me," she said. "But not Grace. She was 4. She still believed Daddy was coming home from work."

Hannah and Bethany never knew the man they call their father, but they grieve just the same, Mladenik said. They occasionally wake her up in the middle of the night.

'It's about the next 100 years'

When Jeff Mladenik's plane, American Airlines Flight 11, hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, Keating Crown helped evacuate the 100th floor of the south tower before heading down. He had just reached the 78th floor when United Airlines Flight 175 struck floors 78 to 84.

He made it down 78 more flights with a broken leg. He considers himself lucky. Not chosen. Lucky.

Though Crown, 33, a former associate for Aon Corp., wants people to remember Sept. 11, he doesn't like to talk about his own ordeal. When the call came to work behind the scenes and quietly honor those who didn't make it out, he embraced the assignment to help with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York.

"I didn't want anything to come across in a way that would offend a mother and a father who lost children on Sept. 11 ," said Crown, who grew up in Winnetka. "The memorial that will open to the families of the victims on the 10th anniversary will be a place generations can come to remember those who weren't as lucky as I was."

Since that call, Crown has bounced between his home in Chicago and meetings in New York, serving on a committee that oversees the design and construction of the memorial and making sure it will be ready to unveil next Sunday. Though he has walked the site many times, he has not allowed himself to get sentimental.

"My involvement has been very businesslike," said Crown, who just earned a joint law degree and MBA from Northwestern University. "In my mind, this memorial is built for so many people. It's certainly built for the survivors — those who were lucky like myself. But first and foremost, the families will be able to come back and be the first ones to touch their loved one's name. I don't think that the time is quite right yet for me."

Crown's wife, Caroline, has insisted that they attend the memorial's opening in New York, even though their first child is due a few days earlier. They have doctors on standby in New York in case she delivers that day.

"What's important is that people, not just in New York, not just in Chicago, people around the country, around the world remember," he said. "It's not about 10 years. It's about the next 100 years. The memorial is going to serve to do that."

'I blame hate'

Marion Kminek doesn't blame herself for persuading her daughter Mari-Rae Sopper to fly across the country to start her new life.

Though the champion gymnast from the north suburbs had earned a law degree, represented defendants for the Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps and worked as a corporate attorney, she always dreamed of coaching collegiate gymnastics. She had taken a 70 percent pay cut to coach at the University of California at Santa Barbara that fall.

Sopper, 35, packed her cat, Sammy, and boarded American Airlines Flight 77 from Washington to Los Angeles. The plane later crashed into the Pentagon.

"It was way too dangerous to drive from D.C. to California. It wasn't a safe thing for a single girl to do," Kminek said. "I blame hate. I blame fear because basically that's what the terrorists felt. It's everything she was against, and I refuse to acknowledge. It does nothing to advance your life."

Although the women's gymnastics program at the university was projected to end after one season, Sopper intended to save it.

Kminek created a memorial fund in her daughter's name to support gymnastics education. It has paid off the mortgage for the Palatine Park District's gym where Sopper began her gymnastics career. It also sponsors an annual invitational in which college-bound female high school gymnasts compete in front of college coaches.

To reflect her daughter's passion for women's rights, Kminek has sponsored women trying to get back on their feet in Bosnia and Kosovo after suffering the trauma of war. She also has lent support to other parents who have lost children in airline disasters.

She keeps records of these projects in a file called "Peaceful Tomorrows," an organization founded by family members of those killed on Sept. 11 who want to channel their grief into peace-building.

Inspired by her daughter's courage to seize opportunity, Kminek and her husband moved to Florida — something they had always wanted to do but postponed.

"We probably wouldn't have retired as early," Kminek said. "We wouldn't have realized life is so short. Everyone here's on loan. That's enlarged for me in the past 10 years."

'Freedom isn't free'

Inscribed on a plaque along the Naperville Riverwalk, words once written by Navy Cmdr. Dan Shanower serve to remind passers-by why he died when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon.

"Those of us in the military are expected to make the ultimate sacrifice when called," Shanower wrote in an essay about losing two colleagues.

"Freedom isn't free."

That declaration comforts his parents, Pat and Don Shanower, of Naperville. His mother wishes she, too, had put pen to paper to remember the months that followed Sept. 11.

But certain moments still stand out — acts of kindness that inspire her to keep trying to make the world a better place. A retired schoolteacher, she records books for the blind, tutors and serves on the Hunger Commission of Community United Methodist Church.

She said she will never forget the Muslim neighbor who was one of the first to knock on her door and offer condolences.

"Something that I read in a devotional book suggested that before you're ready to forgive, you should at least be ready to understand the situation in which the perpetrators of the injustice came from," Pat Shanower said. "That has been of some help."

When friends suggested a memorial flag wave in honor of her son, the idea blossomed into a riverside memorial plaza. Shanower's brother Jon and a friend drove to New York to bring back a beam from the World Trade Center that serves as the memorial's centerpiece. At the base is a stamp of Shanower's boot print.

Though the entire nation mourns, few towns offer the same kind of sanctuary where the public can remember and reflect. The Shanowers will attend a memorial service there that day.

'It's every day with us'

Marianne and Lionel Lenz, of Barrington, are reminded every day that Mary Catherine Lenz Wieman died when Flight 175 hit the south tower during the building's evacuation.

"Everything is either post- or pre-9/11," Lionel Lenz said. "Everything seems to revolve around that date. Every day you're reminded of it. It's very difficult."

Getting away from those reminders has proved impossible. In May, the couple settled in Barrington after selling their previous homes in Arlington Heights, Rolling Meadows and most recently Florida.

During the move, Marianne Lenz unearthed boxes of letters and cards expressing condolences and paying tribute to her daughter. She also came across some of Mary's drawings from kindergarten.

"I hadn't looked at those in 10 years," she said. "That really stirred up a lot of emotion."

Dealing with those emotions has been a daily struggle. There are still days when she and her husband ignore the telephone or a knock at the door. For several years, they attended a support group with other family members at Willow House, which serves people coping with death and dying.

She and Lionel Lenz have tried to maintain a close bond with their grandchildren in Long Island, witnessing graduations and other milestones.

While they have spent many anniversaries at the 9/11 memorial in Naperville, Marianne Lenz doesn't want to see the National September 11 Memorial and Museum opening next Sunday. Frankly, she never wants to return to New York City, she said.

To keep Mary's memory alive, she has created a separate shoe box for each of her three grandchildren to include pictures and mementos of their mother.

"Life goes on," Lenz said. "Try to remember all the good things. Boy, Mary sure would want you to."

'What do I do with this?'

Of the 54 people at the meeting Mary Catherine Wieman organized on the 105th floor of the south tower that day, only seven survived, including Joe Dittmar. He doesn't know why.

He and Wieman were the last to leave the boardroom that morning. When they made it to the 78th floor, she chose to take the elevators. He stuck to the stairs.

"There isn't any doubt that divine providence played a gigantic role in my being saved," he said. "I don't know why. Ten years later, I still don't know that I, 100 percent, have the answer to that question."

That sense of responsibility weighs on him more than survivor's guilt.

"I struggle with, 'This is powerful. What do I do with this?'" he said. "For the last nine years, I've continued to talk and talk and talk so that people will never forget."

The full-time insurance underwriter shares his journey from the 105th floor back to his home in Aurora about 50 to 60 times a year in churches, schools and boardrooms across the country. As long as his host pays the travel expenses from his new home in North Carolina, he will go.

But Dittmar, now 54, also has been able to listen. One by one, people have shared their own traumatic tales of war and loss with someone they believe will understand.

Raised Roman Catholic, Dittmar describes his former self as a no-nonsense, blue-collar guy, promoted through the ranks of the insurance industry by his work ethic. But he said he wouldn't be the "first guy that Peter welcomes into the (pearly) gates."

Sept. 11 transformed his life and his faith. Before he made it to his house on Sept. 12, he attended a Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Aurora.

"My wife jumped over the back of that pew, ran to the back of that church and gave me the greatest hug and kiss that I ever deserved," he said. "I was where I needed to be. I was home."

mbrachear@tribune.com

Twitter @TribSeeker

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading