As the nation gathers to remember the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, some will relive a parent’s worst fear — the loss of a child.
Al and Maureen Santora are among the parents who lost a son on 9/11. Christopher Santora, 23, was an FDNY probie firefighter on Engine 54. Christopher, the family’s middle child and only son, was following in his father footsteps; Al Santora is a retired FDNY deputy chief.
Christopher was supposed to go off duty at 9 that fateful morning. He lived with his parents, who were expecting him home. But at 9:20 a.m. they received a call for all firefighters to report back for duty. “I knew he wasn’t on his way home,” Al Santora said.
Christopher turned up on the list of missing the next day. Al began making the rounds at Ground Zero, hospitals and the morgue trying to locate Christopher or members of his engine company. Maureen was confident that her son was alive, but had amnesia; it was just a matter of finding him.
Fifteen firefighters from Christopher’s station were killed. The Santoras attended the first funeral. And they continued to attend funerals; the Santoras knew the fathers and sons of the fallen. All the while, Maureen remained confident that Christopher would be found.
But by November, the Santoras reluctantly agreed to set a date the next month for Christopher’s memorial service.
And then two days before the service, the city notified the Santoras that there had been a mistake and the first funeral they attended was in fact their son’s body. The city exhumed the body and the Santoras buried their only son.
“It’s a miracle that I would find my son,” Maureen Santora said. “I buried him. I visit him and feel his presence. It would have been very different if we never found him and I feel for the 1,100 people who were not found.”
Only five of the 15 firefighters from Engine 54 were found. Remains still are being found and the pain continues.
“Buildings can be replaced, but you can’t forget the human element of this tragedy,” Maureen Santora said. “For those who lost people, families are still split apart and the fragmentation still is going on.”
The Santoras attended the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation’s Memorial Weekend in 2002. And they continue to participate.
“It’s the parents who are forgotten — everything was so focused on the widows or the children,” said Cathy Hedrick, the mother of a fallen firefighter who now works in corporate relations for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. “We actually find that the parents are more involved with NFFF programs because parents don’t move on; widows and children do.”
Christopher will always be 23 years old to the Santora family. Al and Maureen tell their grandchildren about their Uncle Christopher and his intelligence, resourcefulness and his wonderful sense of humor.
Sept. 11 is a difficult day for the Santora family, so this year, in honor of Christopher, Maureen decided to host a family gathering at the themed Jekyll and Hyde restaurant in New York City, complete with wait-staff in monster costumes.
“Christopher would have loved it and he would think it was fun,” said Maureen. “I’m sure we will be forced to laugh because getting through Sept. 11 is tough and we know he’ll be smiling with us.”
President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “There’s no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were.”
The nation hasn’t gotten back to the way it was, either.