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Are we keeping our vow to 'never forget?'
Suburban families directly affected by 9/11 find the anniversary difficult, sometimes disappointing, but also deeply important
Daily Herald Staff Report

Pat and Donald Shanower of Naperville.

 

Stephanie Janisch | Staff Photographer

Pat and Donald Shanower read a plaque along Naperville's Riverwalk commemorating their son, Navy Cmdr. Dan Shanower, who was killed while working in the Pentagon during the Sept. 11 attacks. The family lives nearby and visits a memorial in his honor regularly.

 

Stephanie Janisch | Staff Photographer

Naperville honors those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks with a memorial service every year at the Cmdr. Dan Shanower/Sept. 11 Memorial near the Riverwalk. Shanower, a Naperville native, was killed while working in the Pentagon.

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Naperville honors those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks with a memorial service every year at the Cmdr. Dan Shanower/Sept. 11 Memorial near the Riverwalk. Shanower, a Naperville native, was killed while working in the Pentagon.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Mari-Rae Sopper, who grew up in Inverness and was a star gymnast at Fremd High School, was on the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

 

Mark Justen, of McHenry, is a suburban funeral director who helped identify victims from ground zero. He brought a flag home to show students in Lake County.

 

State Sen. Peter Roskam, left, chats with Naperville Fire Capt. Chuck Wehrli, who was at ground zero from Sept. 11-22, 2001.

 

Daily Herald File Photo/Tanit Jarusan, 2002

Retired Bensenville Police Sgt. Stephen Heike.

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Retired Bensenville Police Sgt. Stephen Heike of Wood Dale was on an international flight on 9/11 and was asked to guard the cockpit until the plane landed safely in Canada.

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Laurie Trevino of Palatine was pregnant with her daughter, Caitlin, on Sept. 11, 2001. Caitlin is now a second grader at St. Colette Catholic School in Rolling Meadows.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Elgin firefighters/paramedics Joe Marella and Brian Kick were part of an Elgin firefighter crew that went to New York after 9/11 to serve as honor guards at firefighters' funerals.

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/11/2009 12:05 AM | Updated: 9/11/2009 12:17 AM

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It's been eight years.

Eight years since terrorists attacked the U.S., crashing four airplanes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania and killing more than 3,000 people.

The passage of time fades the intense fear, grief and vulnerability we felt on Sept. 11, 2001, while a war launched as a result of the attacks continues to bring new challenges and pain.

Yet, Sept. 11 is a day no one can forget - including suburban people who were directly affected by the events.

Eight years ago, Americans vowed to "never forget" the lives lost. We asked suburban residents connected to the tragedy what they think: is the country doing enough to commemorate this day?

Anniversary sometimes disappoints

The long, meaningful Sept. 11, 2001 tributes take place at the World Trade Center, which is understandable since that's where most of the victims died as the towers filled with flames and smoke on a brilliant, blue-skied morning, then crumpled and fell.

But it's disappointing to people like Marion and Frank Kminek, whose 35-year-old daughter, Mari-Rae Sopper, a Fremd High School alumni, was among the 189 people killed when hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. The tribute for them is now just a 15-minute wreath-laying ceremony.

"There has never been much done about AA77 and the Pentagon," writes Marion Kminek in an e-mail from Europe, where she and Frank are vacationing before attending the Guantanamo terrorist trials out of curiousity and interest in seeing one of the accused terrorists in person.

The 1-year anniversary service at the Pentagon upset the Kmineks deeply, because "President Bush only talked about going to war with Iraq and thanking the unions for rebuilding the Pentagon so quickly," the couple wrote.

The Kmineks never went back, until last year's dedication of the Pentagon's 9/11 memorial, which they found to be "very nice."

The Kmineks, who lived in Inverness and West Dundee before moving to Florida a few years ago, prefer to honor Mari-Rae's life by putting their energy into causes she supported: helping hardworking gymnasts succeed and supporting worthy gymnastics programs.

Sopper, a tenacious 5'2" Navy lieutenant and attorney, had just quit a prestigious job in Washington D.C. and was on her way to California to coach a college gymnastics team. Gymnastics was Sopper's passion, and she had been a star gymnast at Fremd in Palatine and at Iowa State University.

Several gymnastics awards and meets are now named for Sopper, and her memorial fund continues to contribute thousands of dollars for gymnastics scholarships, equipment and programs each year.

Locally, the fund gave $20,700 to support gymnastics programs at the Palatine Park District, where Mari-Rae started her gymnastics career.

- Jamie Sotonoff

"The hardest day"

Pat Shanower of Naperville calls Sept. 11 the "hardest day of the year."

She and her husband Donald lost their son, Navy Cmdr. Dan Shanower, who was working in the Pentagon at the time of the 2001 attacks.

Last year the family commemorated the day at the dedication of a memorial at the Pentagon. This year, they've declined offers to go to observances in New York and Washington, D.C. and the Naval War College in order to attend a ceremony in Naperville.

"Naperville is home," Pat said. "Dan's roots are here and so are ours."

The family feels Naperville is doing its part to honor the victims of the attacks. The city has a memorial in Shanower's name adjacent to the municipal center, and each year there is an observance at the site. The ceremony is at 5 p.m. today.

"Each time we have been down there, we are impressed by the number of people who do remember and care to come out and take note of the day," Pat said.

The Shanower family visits the memorial weekly. But Pat said she understands if Sept. 11 isn't on the forefront of everyone's mind these days.

"With the war going on for so long and so many lives lost, their attention rightfully is turned to the recent ones who have given their lives," she said.

- Melissa Jenco

Similar to Pearl Harbor

Stephen and Janice Heike were on a flight home from a South African vacation when Janice, then a United Airlines employee, was summoned to the cockpit. Sensing something was wrong and having noticed the plane change courses, she instinctively asked if her husband, a retired Bensenville police sergeant, could come with. The Heikes, along with four soldiers on board, were asked to guard the cockpit until the plane could land safely in Montreal. They armed themselves with steak knives - now banned on airplanes because of what happened that day. No one else on the plane yet knew the U.S. was under attack.

The Heikes, of Wood Dale, ended up staying for two days at a ski resort outside Montreal and were on the very first flight to land at O'Hare International Airport after the skies were reopened to commercial air traffic.

Stephen, who is now 67 and works at an IDOT maintenance facility in Schaumburg, said what he went through that day was nothing compared to those who lost loved ones or who were in New York City or at the Pentagon.

No matter how much time passes, he doesn't worry that the memories of 9/11 will fade. It will continue to be marked, just as Pearl Harbor is nearly 70 years later.

"I think the president and everybody does commemorate 9/11 for the black deed that it is," Heike said. "It isn't Pearl Harbor, but it is Pearl Harbor. We were just attacked in a different way."

And the history of 9/11 is still being written, Heike said. It started a war on terrorism, but we still don't know "where (that war) is going to go."

- Diana Wallace

Remembering "ones like us"

For Elgin firefighters Joe Marella and Brian Kick, Sept. 11, 2001 doesn't seem like yesterday.

Both men - who after the attack volunteered to stand guard at the funerals of fallen New York City firefighters - have seen their lives change much in the eight years that have passed.

New homes. Marriage. Promotions. Children.

The memory of serving at seven funerals in three days will undoubtedly stay with them forever, they say.

Shortly after the New York funerals, Marella traveled back to the city, taking and passing the written and oral tests to join Manhattan's fire department. But by the time his number was called four years later, life was different. He was engaged, and had moved to Rockton.

"In those four years, your life can change. I wasn't a single guy anymore," he said.

He does still think about the trip, of standing outside the packed churches in his dress uniform, one service after another. He still keeps the memorial cards from the funerals. But he and Kick say they've also gone on with their jobs.

"Obviously you think about it because it's a historical day now," Kick said.

He admits he almost feels "selfish" that the number of firefighters ­who died in the attacks - 343 - is ingrained in his memory.

"It's just our nature to remember the ones like us," he said.

- Kerry Lester

"Keep moving on"

As a member of the federal Disaster Mortuary Response Operational Team, suburban funeral home director Mark Justen worked in New York for nine months after the terrorist attacks, helping identify people killed at the World Trade Center.

Justen, 56, of McHenry, believes Americans properly honor the victims of the attacks with community events. He believes the anniversary shouldn't be a national day off from work or school.

"Take a day to remember," Justen explained. "But keep moving on."

Justen still travels to New York to reunite with the police officers and other officials he worked alongside that year. He's been to ground zero, One Police Plaza and other landmarks.

"You go down there and try to make closure," said Justen, whose business has locations in Lake and McHenry counties. "There's always closure."

- Russell Lissau

Dispelling myths

Retired Naperville Fire Capt. Chuck Wehrli says "sometimes I get disappointed in people just not remembering" the Sept. 11 attacks. But what bothers him even more is when he hears or sees some of the myths about the attacks.

Wehrli was on a Federal Emergency Management Agency search-and-rescue team that worked at the fallen World Trade Center towers. He also is friends with a rescuer who found the body of Naperville native Dan Shanower at the Pentagon.

"Every year I try to give something back," Wehrli said, noting that this year he'll give a 45-minute presentation at Neuqua Valley High School on the work his team did.

One year, students said their mother told them the Pentagon was hit by a rocket, not by an airliner commanded by terrorists.

"I said, 'I've got the phone number of a man (rescue worker) who saw the guys (terrorist pilots) sitting in the plane in the Pentagon,'" Wehrli said.

Wehrli is still on the FEMA team, but thinking about leaving in the next year after 10 years of service. He also is on the board of directors of State Urban Search and Rescue Alliance, a national group promoting the development of state rescue teams.

- Susan Sarkauskas

"People have forgotten"

Laurie Trevino, a school bus driver from Palatine, did not lose a loved one on 9/11.

But the horror she felt that day was a stark contrast to the sheer joy she'd felt: Nearing 40 and having tried for years to get pregnant, she and her husband David were finally expecting.

Now she wondered what kind of world her baby would inherit, a world in which "so many people hated us."

"How could I keep her safe when our own government couldn't keep us safe, when terrorists were killing innocent people?" she recalls thinking.

Since then, she's made a point of explaining 9/11 to her daughter Caitlin, now 7. Trevino thinks it's important that those who don't have their own memories of that day understand it.

"People have forgotten, and I think that's a shame," she said. "We still have troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. People are still dying because of what happened on 9/11. If we forget, we're doing them a huge disservice."

- Diana Wallace