Thursday, September 10, 2009

Finding Solace By the Sea

9/11 boardwalk benches serve as memorials for families

By Joseph Kellard

“It’s the right spot to be,” Mary Ann Marino said of a bench on the Long Beach boardwalk that she and her family dedicated to her firefighter son, Ken, soon after he was killed at the scorched World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Ken’s remains were never found, and although his name and image are part of many memorials, from his native Oceanside to Manhattan, the bench has come to symbolically substitute as his final resting place. “We don’t have any place to go,” said Mary Ann. “We never found Kenny.”

While the gold lettering of the bench plaque’s inscription has faded after nearly eight years, the words remain: “Love is eternal. It has no beginning and no end.” Like other families who have dedicated benches to their loved ones killed on 9/11, Mary Ann and her husband, Pat, as well as Ken’s widow, Katrina, their children, Tyler and Kristin, and his sister, Lynda — who are all listed on the plaque — continue to visit his bench throughout the year to remember him.

His parents recall that Ken carried his boyhood dream to fight fires into adulthood, when he grew into a burly 6-foot-5 man who earned a reputation as a serious, knowledgeable firefighter passionate about his job. He moved to Long Beach in 1987, volunteered at the city’s fire department and earned his keep at the post office. Three years later he joined the New York City Fire Department, but continued to volunteer in Long Beach until 1997. After he moved his family to Monroe, N.Y., he rose through the FDNY ranks and eventually joined Rescue 1, an elite Manhattan unit that was among the first to arrive at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Marino died at age 40.

Each Sept. 11, the Marinos head to the boardwalk with flowers in hand after they attend the morning ceremony in lower Manhattan. They had Ken’s bench placed as far west on the boardwalk as possible, near Grand Boulevard, to be near the West End apartments he rented as a bachelor.

“We put the bench there, and it’s a place that gives us a little solace,” Mary Ann said. “On Christmas and Thanksgiving sometimes, and certainly always on Sept. 11, we’ll sit there and look at the ocean, because Kenny loved Long Beach and the ocean and he would ride his bike on the boardwalk.”

Fellow Oceansider Arlene Nussbaum visits two benches dedicated to her son, Jeff. She bought a bench for him at Lafayette and the boardwalk, near where his brother, Craig, has lived for many years, and Craig got one for him at National beach.

“There’s a closeness there,” Arlene said when asked to distinguish between visiting Jeff’s benches and Beth Moses Cemetery in Farmingdale, where he is buried next to his father, Jerry. “He loved the ocean and would meet his brother and friends on the boardwalk at National when they went to the beach. I feel he’s living there now.”

Jeff was 37 and a senior vice president of foreign currency for Carr Futures Associates at the Trade Center when he was “murdered,” as his mother puts it. When Arlene learned of the bench dedications, which were offered in the months right after 9/11, she quickly got one for Jeff. But it took her 10 heart-wrenching days to compose the inscription: “When we look at the sand we see your footprints. When we see your pictures, your eyes look into ours — Your voice is in the wind whispering to all. When our eyes fill with tears, we are holding the joy of your love. You may not be here today but you will always live in our hearts. All our love forever & ever.”

Jeff had a fun-loving personality that drew people to him, his mother said, and he had many friends who he liked to head out to the Hamptons with each summer.

Each Sept. 11, when Arlene and Craig visit Jeff’s benches, they adorn them with balloons, flowers and American flags. This year they have decided not to attend the annual 9/11 Sunrise Memorial in Point Lookout. “I’m reliving everything and it’s very, very difficult,” Arlene said. “Craig and I both felt that it’s putting too many knives in our hearts.”

She added that she doesn’t know what to expect when she visits Jeff’s benches on Friday, after an eerie experience she had last year. Someone had planted a row of American flags on the boardwalk guardrail at Lafayette, and all of the poles were straight except for one, directly in front of Jeff’s bench. “A gentleman went over and straightened out the flag pole, and two minutes after he left, again it moved to an angle,” Arlene recalled. “This happened four times! Jeff was there. It wasn’t even windy, and if it was, why only one out of 25 moved? … If you believe in that, this is what keeps many of us going on with day-to-day life. That’s important.”

Long Beach resident Rob Carlo found it unusual that a crowd had gathered around his brother Michael’s bench as Rob emerged from a swim in the ocean off Grand Boulevard on Sept. 11 a few years ago. They turned out to be Michael’s childhood friends from their native Whitestone, who since 2002 had made it a ritual to visit his bench before sundown on the anniversary. Mike had been a firefighter with Engine 230 in Bedford-Stuyvesant since 1994, and was killed at the World Trade Center at
age 34.

His brother has joined his friends ever since, along with as many as 30 other family members, fellow firefighters and neighbors from Tennessee Avenue. “It’s the one time I get to see my brother’s friends,” Rob said, “and it always feels like he’s there, because when I see them all around we start sharing stories about him, and someone always has a new one.”

Rob, a retired firefighter from Ladder 23 in Harlem who arrived at “the pile” in lower Manhattan later on Sept. 11, rented a house in Long Beach with his brother in 1999, and in subsequent years moved there permanently. They played volleyball together on the beach where Michael’s bench is today.

“I just thought it was a good idea to better the boardwalk and to remember Michael,” Rob said about buying the bench. He visits it each Christmas to hang a wreath, and on Friday he may decorate it with an American flag during the annual gathering.

Rob described Mike as a life-of-the-party type who enjoyed socializing and spending his time on the water, kayaking and boating. Rob chose his brother’s favorite quote, one by Mark Twain that he kept on a Post-It note over his desk, for the plaque inscription: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones that you did. So throw off the bowline, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade wins in your sails. Explore, dream, discover.”

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