A mother never forgets

Times Staff Writer

Sitting in a chair just after 7:30 a.m., beneath the amber glow of a hallway light, Carol Ashley leans over and ties the laces on an old pair of sneakers. She slips her good shoes into her purse. She knows it will be muddy in the pit.

Outside, the sky is gray and rain slaps her windows. Six years ago on a Tuesday morning nothing like this one, Ashley's 25-year-old daughter, Janice, stood in this hallway wearing a taupe dress suit, a silver watch and her great-grandmother's pearl earrings. She carried a gym bag. She was on her way to work on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center's north tower.

"She said, 'Bye, Mom,' " says Ashley, 61, putting on a black trench coat that used to belong to Janice, before heading to the ground zero memorial. "Then she was gone."

On the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ashley does not know if the day will bring her to tears. She does not know if it will be easier than every other year she has gone to ground zero. Each time, it was clear and sunny, like it was on that horrible day. On this morning, Ashley is happy for the rain.

This will probably be the last time families mourn inside the pit where the two towers crumbled. It is a construction site now, and city officials say it will be too dangerous to visit next year. Officials decided to hold this year's memorial service in a nearby park instead of at ground zero, allowing families to descend into the pit to pay tribute throughout the day.

In recent weeks, people have talked of cutting future remembrances short, scaling back the onslaught of public memorials, getting over it. WABC-TV in New York had planned not to broadcast the reading of all the victims' names this year, but decided against that idea after families protested.

Ashley knows all of this. She understands the public's desire to move on. But she is also terrified that people will forget that day, forget Janice. She has made it her responsibility to ensure that does not happen.

She steps into the rain, wearing a black beret and a silver bracelet on her left wrist with the inscription, "Janice Ashley WTC." It is a 45-minute train ride to Manhattan from her home in Rockville Centre, N.Y. She opens her umbrella. Her husband, William, is still sleeping. He has never gone to the ground zero memorial. It is still too hard for him.

"There are people who aren't ready," Ashley says. "Even after six years."

'My baby'

The ceremony is underway when Ashley arrives at One Liberty Plaza, at 9:40 a.m. The air is hot and sticky. She flashes identification that proves she is a 9/11 victim's family member and a guard waves her through.

Firefighters and first responders stand in uniform on a stage reading the victims' names. Ashley walks past the family members wearing ponchos, hugging one another and sobbing. She ignores the bright glow from media crews' lights and cameras. She does not stop to listen for her daughter's name. What matters is visiting the pit.

She follows a trail of mourners entering a path blocked off by a guard rail. Volunteers pass out tiny packets of tissues, water bottles and roses from baskets. Ashley takes tissues and three roses, white, red and pink, for herself, her husband and her son.

She pulls a note from her purse with a photo of her daughter. It reads: "Janice, you are forever loved." She ties it around the stems of the roses with a gold string.

Ashley looks around and notices there are fewer mourners than in past years. She remembers the first anniversary memorial at ground zero. She was there with her niece, Allison Ashley, 28, and Janice's boyfriend.

She has attended every one since then by herself. Her son, Michael, 24, who was a freshman in college when his sister died, has not been down to ground zero either.

Ashley remembers making her way into the bedrock on that morning in 2002. The air was still, but suddenly it began to blow wildly. Dust and dirt swirled. She thought it felt like the wind was carrying the spirits of the dead.

She saw families scooping dust and dirt into water bottles. So many families had not yet recovered the remains of their loved ones. By 2007, many still do not have them.

People talk of moving on now, Ashley says, but what about families who have not had a chance to bury their dead?

Janice's remains arrived back in Rockville Centre three years after she died. She was buried in August 2005.

She would be 31 now, Ashley says. Married, probably, and she would own an apartment. She might have had kids already, or maybe she would have put her career first.

"She would be enjoying life," Ashley says with a pink-lipstick smile, revealing layers of laugh lines she has earned. Her hazel eyes are misty.

"Yeah," she adds, "my baby."

A 'new normal'

Janice loved art and poetry and majored in English at Cornell University. She decided to work in finance, and got a job as a research associate at Fred Alger in 2000. Janice was saving to buy an apartment, and collecting furniture at her parents' home until she was ready to move out.

That morning, before the hijackers crashed planes into the twin towers, Janice drove a 1992 black Chevrolet Camaro that her parents bought her when she was 17. She parked it at a nearby train stop and rode into the city.

Ashley left her daughter's car at the station for days after the attacks, finally driving it back home one painful day. She parked it in the driveway, but seeing it reminded her that Janice would not drive it again. They put it up for sale.

"I got up and thought, 'Oh my God, my daughter is dead,' " she remembers thinking. "I don't care if I live or die."

Ashley had retired from her job as a grade-school teacher in 2001, before the attacks. She had planned to enjoy a new chapter in her life. Instead, night after night, she searched the Internet and read newspapers. She read everything she could about the U.S. government, its policies, its political track record with other nations. She read about the Middle East. She read about Osama bin Laden. She read about President Bush.

Ashley met other victims' families. She grew angrier. She joined the Family Steering Committee for the 9/11 Independent Commission, and she testified before Congress.

She also helped create a website for Janice, as part of the 9/11 Living Memorial, a digital archive commemorating the victims, which will be available to the Library of Congress and the National Archives. In it, she included poems that Janice wrote, photos and letters from friends.

Ashley realized that she had to create a "new normal" for herself and her family. The three took trips together to places such as Hawaii, California and Cancun, Mexico. They took new family photos. It was hard, she says, "but it was the beginning."

Six years later, Ashley has set new goals, such as starting the activities she had planned to do when she retired: She wants to learn French, take piano and dance lessons, and learn to knit. Maybe she will learn how to design Web pages, she says, or maybe one day write a book.

An unexpected reunion

It is still drizzling as Ashley walks down the long bridge, into the mud. Religious counselors and clerics line the walkway to offer support. Somber-faced mourners who have visited the pit walk past her. Some have the faces and names of their loved ones silk-screened on their T-shirts.

At the bottom, Ashley comes to a wooden pool, filled with roses and floating photos of husbands and wives, daughters and sons. All around it, men weep and women pray.

Ashley gently lays down her roses and note. She kneels, pulls out a pen and writes a message on the wood: "Janice, You are always in our hearts."

She stands and turns around to face the footprint of the north tower, staring at an empty sky.

As she leaves, Ashley sees Allison, who had visited ground zero with her on the first anniversary. Her niece, who has not been back since that day, is making her way down. The two stop and hug.

Ashley lets go and looks up, her cheeks wet with tears.

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erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

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