How to help the thousands of children left behind

Monday, October 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

(PELHAM, N.Y.) - How do you tell the Shea children in Pelham that their father is in heaven when they have just witnessed hell?

How do you comfort the child who sees repeated reminders of his father's death on television, on magazine covers, on the front pages of every newspaper?

In Chattanooga, Tenn., Kathie Scobee Fulgham understands. Fifteen years ago she watched her father die a very public death, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during launch on Jan. 28, 1986. Dick Scobee led the mission.

``Yours is a small voice in a crashing storm of questions,'' she wrote in an open letter to the thousands of children whose parents died in the terrorist attacks. ``But no answers will bring you comfort. And no answers will bring you closer to understanding, save one: Your Mom or Dad was in harm's way.''

Fulgham remembers the horror and helplessness as she watched pieces of her father's spaceship fall from the sky. She recalls the relentless media coverage that made it seem like her father was dying a hundred times a day. Nightmarish thoughts about his broken body. Crazy hopes that he was still alive, clinging to a piece of debris in the ocean.

If only rescuers would keep searching, she thought, they would find him. Eventually they found some remains, and that made everything worse.

``Everyone saw it, everyone hurt, everyone grieved, everyone hurt,'' said Fulgham, who was 22 at the time. ``But that did not make it any easier for me.''

And it doesn't make it easier for the many children who lost parents on Sept. 11.

The scenes are heartbreaking: children carrying fire helmets, or playing flute at a father's funeral, or delivering a eulogy when they are still too young to really know what the word means.

The scope is staggering.

From the bond trading company Cantor Fitzgerald alone, an estimated 1,500 children lost a parent. The New York Times this week estimated that up to 15,000 children may have been left without a mother or father as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. And that doesn't account for those who lost uncles, and cousins, a baseball coach, a neighbor, a friend.

``It's so much harder than my own grief,'' said Nancy Shea of Pelham, whose husband Joseph, went to work in the Trade Center and never returned. ``I don't know how to lead them out of this. What do you say to a 10-year-old girl who lost her daddy, her uncle and her baby sitter?''

Joseph and Daniel Shea were brothers who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. They were young and handsome and smart. Between them, they left seven children, ranging in age from 7 months to 14 years.

Every child in Pelham seems to know one of the Sheas. Or 22-year-old Amy O'Doherty, who baby-sat for them and was such a part of the family that Joseph Shea helped get her a job at his company. Or Joseph Leavey, the firefighter who worked in New York City. Last week his children were still wondering when he would come home.

Every child in Pelham seems to be aching for someone. Magnify that by thousands of other broken young hearts, and families, in New York and Washington and their suburbs.

Pelham is a pretty little town of 12,000 people that prides itself on being the first true suburb outside New York City. It borders the Bronx, 20 miles from the World Trade Center where nine residents were lost. That is more than the town lost in the Korean War or in Vietnam.

The community rallied around the way it always does in a crisis. The local supermarket sent food to the families. The local liquor store sent wine. College funds have been set up for many of the children.

Practical matters are taken care of, for the moment.

But it is not the practical matters that worry Lisa Hord, another of Pelham's new widows. Yes, she says, she will need a lot of help. But it's just too soon to think of future bills when her three young children are only beginning to grasp that their daddy is dead.

The day after the attack, Hord gathered her children, a 7-year-old daughter and 6-year-old twins. She explained that their father, Montgomery Hord, a broker with Cantor Fitzgerald, was one of about 700 people missing from his firm.

Maybe they got the numbers wrong, her 7-year-old suggested hopefully. Maybe it was only 699. Then she asked about ballet class.

Lisa Hord has shielded her children from the pictures and from television. But she can't help but wonder: Will they forever be branded as the children of the Trade Center terror?

``It's not history to them,'' she said. ``It's their lives.''

Kathie Scobee Fulgham felt the same.

For years she wrestled with trying to fit her private desolation into the national loss. Often, just when she was coming to terms with it, she would be blindsided once again. A photograph, a television documentary, a comment. And she would be plunged once more into the horror. She knows the children of the Trade Center attacks will face the same.

``We, the Challenger children and all the children of public disasters, are hearing your hearts break, holding your hands and hugging you from afar,'' Fulgham wrote in her letter. ``You are not alone.''

But so many children feel very much alone.

In Pelham and neighboring towns, the numbers of people flocking to memorial services and funerals is so great, they have to be scheduled around each other.

For many children it is their first funeral. And it has totally altered their perception of death.

One Pelham teen told her friends how devastated she was when her grandmother died a week before the terrorist attack. Now she feels lucky.

``At least she died a normal death,'' she said. ``At least there was a coffin and a funeral and a body.''

She was speaking at a forum at Pelham Memorial High School, held to help students deal with the tragedy. Students were assured their comments would be anonymous.

None of the children who lost parents came. But their friends were there, struggling with their own grief, and with questions about how to console their peers.

One 15-year-old described sitting with her best friend, son of a firefighter, watching the images on television, waiting for the call to say his dad was safe.

``What can I say to him?'' she said, voice filled with anguish. ``What can I do, when all he wants is to go to Ground Zero and dig through the rubble and find his Dad?''

Another girl pulled out a picture of Amy O'Doherty, who graduated from the school in 1996.

``Amy was my neighbor, she was my role model,'' the girl, her voice trailing. ``She was just the best in the world.''

Others talked of lives changed in other ways, of the fear inspired by F-16 fighter jets screeching through the night for days after the attack, of a world and a future that seems so frightening.

One girl described sitting at her computer the night after the attacks and typing a message to a friend in Ohio.

``My dad says it is all right: They are protecting us. I should feel safe. But I don't feel safe. I feel scared to death.''

Across the country, in Broken Arrow, Okla., Jonmichael Rigney understands. His mother, Trudy Rigney, was one of 168 people who died when the Alfred P. Murrah federal building was bombed in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Jonmichael was 11 at the time. His mother had been raising him alone. And so his life changed utterly: a new home with his grandmother 100 miles away, a new school, new friends.

He learned things boys of 11 don't usually learn: that it's OK to cry in front of your friends, that there is some comfort in knowing others are hurting in the same way, that it is better to have a body to bury than never to know for sure.

He learned that the best thing his friends could do was tell him nice stories about his mom - to help him remember her life, not her death.

``Things were very, very bad for some time,'' said Rigney, now 18. ``But they get better as you get older. With time, you learn to accept.''

But all around New York, there are many grieving children who want to speed up time.

At the students' forum in Pelham last week, one 14-year-old announced that he couldn't wait for snow. Because if he was throwing snowballs at his friends, time would have passed. It would be a new season. He wouldn't be thinking of death all the time.

And snow covers everything.