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'They never made it home'

A year later, eyewitnesses bear scars but find solace

By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 9/12/2002

NEW YORK - Gregory van Kipnis, 61, coughs all the time now - the result of the acrid smoke he inhaled from the flaming World Trade Center towers last year. The cough is a legacy, he says, of the floating souls the smoke contained.

Lisa Nell, 31, has grown more outspoken during the last year, in love as well as anger. Lewis Vidal, 32, is still troubled by his fruitless search for survivors in the steaming rubble. Charles Mangano, 48, has tried to find a meaning to it all by composing on his guitar.

Last year, all four New Yorkers were in front-row seats to an unfolding nightmare as the burning hulk of the Twin Towers collapsed before their eyes. That day, interviewed in or near the rubble that remained, they told their stories to the Globe. Yesterday, they described how having the death and destruction of Sept. 11 has, over the course of 12 months, irrevocably altered their lives.

''It's put a lot of things into perspective,'' said Mangano, marketing manager for Deutsche Asset Management. He also plays in a band called the Rolling Bones. In the last year, he retired after spending 15 years in a previous job, spent four months playing music and surfing, and grew closer to his family.

As a song he wrote about 9/11 goes: ''Staring death in the eye/ Ain't no pretty sight/ Daytime turns to darkness/ Into the horror of the night/ But the darkness shines a bright line on the meaning of/ Your life ... ''

There was far less clarity last Sept. 11, when the second jet slammed into the World Trade Center, startling Mangano at his desk just across the street in the World Financial Center. Evacuating his building, he ran to the closest sanctuary he could think of: the Off Wall Street Jam, a nearby studio where he found fellow musicians and a working phone.

Then the towers collapsed. The studio shook, and its windows broke. Smoke billowed in. Mangano grabbed a guitar, and he and a friend starting loudly strumming the Rolling Stones' ''Gimme Shelter'' to alleviate their fears.

''Keith Richards is the patron saint of survival,'' Mangano explained, referring to the lead guitarist's ability to withstand years of hard living and rock n' roll.

Music has become a solace, as has surfing off Long Island. But today, Mangano still turns his eyes skyward when a plane flies too low. He keeps the clothes he was wearing last Sept. 11 in a bag, unable to wear them or wash them of white dust that turned Lower Manhattan into a ''nuclear winter,'' as he then put it.

Unfinished conversations haunt him. ''I had told her to come hear my band play, that it won't be a party without you,'' Mangano said, recalling a conversation he had with a friend before she was killed in the Trade Center collapse. ''And she said, ''I'll be there.'''

Persistent memories stalk Lisa Nell's life, too. She had just driven off the Staten Island ferry last year when the first tower collapsed. A man ran out of the rubble, hysterically banged on her car, and she opened the door.

''And then all the smoke and debris came in, and he was gone - I couldn't find him in all the smoke,'' recalled Nell. ''And when it cleared, I didn't know what happened to him.'' It is a memory she cannot banish from her mind.

Today, she is looking for a job closer to home, remembering it took until 8:30 p.m. last Sept. 11 to return to Staten Island, after hitching a ride on a tugboat. Family vacations have been at home, picnics on the living room floor.

Most of all, however, Nell is more honest now with those she loves. ''Anger, admiration, happiness, sadness,'' she said. ''I am more open now. You never know. Those people went to work on a normal day, and they never made it home.''

It is those who never made it home whom Lewis Vidal still thinks about today. He spent last Sept. 11 digging through the smoking debris with members of Steel Workers Union 45, trying to find survivors. It was an exhausting - and futile - search.

''It changed me a lot,'' Vidal said. ''I don't think I am the same person now.'' Laid off last September before the terrorist attack, Vidal, a technical engineer who also trained as a nurse, has been unemployed since.

Last Sept. 11 he labored from morning to night, his sneaker soles scorched by day's end from the boiling wreckage underfoot. He dug with a shovel and scrabbled with his hands. But all he found were the dead.

''We took priests to bless the bodies we found,'' Vidal recalled. ''But mostly it was just body parts, just pieces of the body, totally burnt.''

Yesterday, Vidal planned a pilgrimage to the World Trade Center site, bearing snapshots of the men he worked shoulder-to-shoulder with there.

Gregory van Kipnis also recalled last Sept. 11 in vivid detail. A year later, he remembers that the street corner where he granted an interview just before noon was later covered with rubble. It was where 7 World Trade Center eventually collapsed. ''That made it very acute to me,'' said van Kipnis, a hedge fund manager who lives in Lenox, Mass., and New York City.

Since 9/11, he said, he finds he has become more vocal in his views, calling on people to ''stand up - for all the good things that underpin our concept of liberalism and freedom.''

Last year, van Kipnis had every intention of being a witness to history in the making: a terrorist attack he then likened to Pearl Harbor. No sooner did he see the first plane plow into the World Trade Center from his midtown office window than he left, found a bike to rent, and cycled madly downtown.

''This is my city,'' said van Kipnis, who works for Tiedemann Investment Group. ''I don't like to deal in abstractions.''

He passed the morning bicycling around the smoking ruins, imprinting the scene on his memory, if he could help. Beyond the swirling smoke and fire he knew there were colleagues, distant friends, who had probably perished in the attack. So he breathed deeply, over and over again. ''I inhaled the experience,'' he said. ''I now carry that dust in my lungs.''

This story ran on page A21 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2002.
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