A Life and Love Lost Amid Towers' Ruins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andy O'Grady and Rachel Uchitel met on a blind date. "Three years ago, right around this time," Uchitel said.

From that day on, their lives blended nicely.

O'Grady was a four-year letter-winning swimmer at UCLA, where he qualified for the NCAA championships in the 100 and 200 breaststroke his freshman, sophomore and senior years. He was a team co-captain as a senior in 1991, and he stayed on as a graduate assistant coach for a year.

A native of Harrington Park, N.J., he went back east after college and was a managing director at the investment banking firm Sandler O'Neill & Partners. He worked at 2 World Trade Center, on the 104th floor.

Uchitel was an editor in charge of future projects for Bloomberg News, a television news service. She and O'Grady settled into an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. They got engaged Aug. 5 and set a wedding date of May 4, 2002.

Those happy visions fell apart before Uchitel's disbelieving eyes Sept. 11. Instead of planning a spring wedding, she spent this week planning a memorial service for O'Grady today at the Central Park Boathouse in Manhattan.

O'Grady, 32, is missing and presumed dead in the rubble of the World Trade Center's south tower, the second of the Twin Towers hit by a hijacked plane that day and the first to crumble. Uchitel watched the horrifying collapse on TV monitors at her office.

"It hit me, but [the scope] didn't completely hit me," she said. "I stayed at work until late and I watched the towers fall. I covered it for our news.

"I was waiting for him to come home. I thought, 'No way anything really bad happened. He'll be at a hospital.' We had just gotten back from Greece. It was his second day back at work. He had just gotten to his office about 45 minutes before it happened."

Uchitel called O'Grady and talked to him briefly after the first hijacked plane hit the north tower. He sounded stressed, she said, but when she asked if anyone was being evacuated from the building, he told her no. When they spoke again, she said he sounded increasingly stressed and told her, 'Rachel, it's really chaotic here. You don't understand. I just saw somebody jump out the window."'

Yet, she was sure O'Grady, who still swam recreationally and was a member of the New York Athletic Club, would somehow escape harm.

"I never feared for him," she said. "I thought it was an accident until I saw the second plane hit. I called him, and his phone was dead."

Desperate to find him, she went from hospital to hospital for days hoping for word; during her search, an Associated Press photographer captured her image in a photograph that ran in many newspapers around the world, including The Times.

Like so many other New Yorkers who were missing loved ones, she had fliers printed up with O'Grady's picture, hoping someone had seen him escape and would recognize his name or face and would call her. She also went to the New York Armory, a gathering point for victims' friends and relatives, and submitted his vital information in hopes he might have been taken to a hospital, unconscious, and someone would track him down and reunite them.

She found nothing but heartache and frustration--and the additional tragic news that dozens of other Sandler, O'Neill employees are missing. Eight were confirmed dead as of Thursday, according to the company's Web site. Including O'Grady, whose body has not been found in the tons of rubble and might never be recovered, 58 employees, two consultants to the firm and two visitors are unaccounted for.

Rich Tuohey golfed with O'Grady most weekends and considered O'Grady his best friend. They usually sat side-by-side at work, but Tuohey was in Washington for a meeting Sept. 11. He tried to find out what was happening in New York but couldn't cut through the confusion. Later, he heard the incomprehensibly bad news.

"It's just awful," said Tuohey, who helped arrange today's memorial service. "Andy was an incredible guy who touched the lives of everybody he met in a special way. His loss will be felt on both coasts, by everyone who knew him."

Although she continued to call hospitals for more than a week seeking a miracle, Uchitel finally gave up hope.

The grieving process has begun for her, and for others: She attended a funeral service for O'Grady's boss, Herman Sandler, on Monday, and she's gathering her fiance's friends and family to celebrate his life today. A religious service will be held Saturday at a church in Harrington Park.

Among the hundreds of people expected at today's tribute are many of O'Grady's swimming buddies, some of his UCLA classmates, some Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers and his old coach, Ron Ballatore, who left UCLA after the school dropped men's swimming in 1994.

Uchitel asked friends to bring their favorite pictures of O'Grady to the Boathouse, a way to keep his spirit alive even though he is gone.

"It's very strange. I still keep feeling like he hasn't left yet," Uchitel said of O'Grady, who is also survived by his parents and an older sister. "And it seems so far away. I almost forget what he was like."

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