Fire That Year, But No Candles
Sep 10, 2006

Senior Falon Taddeo has article published in Newsday...

Falon Taddeo is a professional communications major and women's volleyball player at Farmingdale State University of New York.-

Sept. 11 is my birth date. Since I was old enough to remember, I couldn't wait to be 17 and drive a car alone. That would be Sept. 11, 2001, the first week of my senior year in high school. Excitement vibrated through my body. It was going to be an amazing day.

Jenn was my best friend since elementary school; sisters could not be closer. We were part of each other's families. Conveniently, we both had first and second periods off from school that day, and Jenn's mom had invited me to a birthday breakfast. I couldn't, and wouldn't, say no.

As I walked up to the house that morning the door swung open, knocking me over as Jenn's brother, John, rushed out. He was off to lawyerly work in Manhattan, spiffed up in a suit, tie and his dad's hand-me-down vintage briefcase. He helped me up, then sprinted to his car. "Sorry, Fali, I'm gonna miss the train. Oh, and by the way, happy birthday, kiddo."

John came up with the nickname "Fali" for me when I was 6, and it has stuck ever since, the way nicknames from brothers do. Through his teen years I remember him always being in trouble; mixed up with drugs and even losing his football scholarship. After rehab five years before, John returned home. He stayed clean, went back to college and graduated from law school. Straight out of law school at 26, he was hired by a law firm in the World Trade Center, Tower One.

After mechanically waving good-bye, I entered a kitchen filled with balloons, streamers, birthday banners and the aroma of banana pancakes. Breakfast was ready at 8:30.

About 25 minutes into the celebration, a cell phone rang. The screen read JOHN'S CELL. Jenn's mom grabbed the phone and with a mother's instinct blurted, "John, what's wrong?"

Slipping into panic, she pleaded, "Are you kidding? Please, John; if this is another of your stupid jokes, it's not funny."

We flew out of our chairs, a flurry of questions. She put John on speaker phone, and we learned that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, John's tower, and he had been told to remain calm and not leave.

Emotion welled up in our eyes as John's mom said to her son, "Just sit with somebody, don't do this alone. If you can't get out, don't die alone."

Then, suddenly, John's voice called out, "Jenny? Can you hear me? I love you, be a good girl, I love you. I'm so sor-."

The kitchen shrank, the air cloying and thick. I could not breathe; the pressure on my chest was too great. Tears poured down my face. I watched Jenn fall to her knees, her voice shrieking unspeakably at the top of her lungs. When I tried to help her up, she pushed me away, arms flailing.

After she and her mom had simmered down a bit, I rushed to school for my own brother. The lobby was filled with crying girls and people screaming things like, "My dad/mom/uncle/neighbor works at the World Trade Center." I spied my brother's back, grabbed him by his collar, and rushed us home.

In the kitchen, I hugged my mother, stammering about everything from breakfast to Jenn to John to their mother; I had never made my mom sob like that. She held me until every emotion rained out of my eyes.

Nearby in Oceanside, there is an industrial area called Oil City. We sometimes would go to the top of Oil City and watch the city light up at night, especially the Twin Towers. My cousin, James, suggested we go there and see the disaster ourselves. He drove.

Atop Oil City, all we could see were those infamous black clouds rising from Manhattan. We sat on the hood of his car until nightfall, me continuing to believe that maybe John somehow had survived the explosions. It was a false hope, but it was what got me through my 17th birthday.

Now every year on my birthday, the nation stops to reflect on that date. Every classroom, every television station, every conversation, it seems, brings me back to that morning.

I cannot blow out the flame on a birthday candle without imagining John struggling to escape fire and an unspeakable end. Five years. It may as well have been yesterday.

(Story taken from Newsday)