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Widow advocates for other Sept. 11 families
By Denise Lavoie, Associated Press
ABINGTON, Mass. — A few months after her father was killed in the terror attacks, 8-year-old Julia Coombs wrote a note to update him on what had been happening in their family.
"Mom's on the phone again and again and again ..." Julia wrote, then put the note in a memory box to her dad.
The note made Christie Coombs laugh. Talking on the phone has been one of her main activities since Sept. 11.
Within weeks of the attacks that killed her husband, Jeff, who was a passenger on American Flight 11, Coombs was organizing a giant yard sale and silent auction to benefit grieving relatives of other Massachusetts families who lost loved ones. Those events raised $45,000.
But Coombs didn't stop there. She has become one of the leading advocates for Sept. 11 families, a role she says came easily to her.
"Nobody understands what we're going through except each other," she said. "It helps to support one another."
Coombs has spoken at countless memorials, fundraisers and other events held to honor the victims. For the children of those killed, she helped get a block of seats for a Red Sox game and a trip to watch the New England Patriots practice at their training camp.
And even though it is still painful for her to do so, each time she gives a speech, she tells her own story of loss.
She and Jeffrey Coombs met at a fraternity party in 1979, when both were students at the University of Arizona. They fell in love, married a few years later and had three children: Matthew, 14, Meaghan, 12, and Julia.
The family lives in Abington, a small town about 20 miles south of Boston, close to Jeff's family. Both Christie and Jeff were active in their children's schools. Jeff also loved coaching his kids' soccer teams.
Jeff became a security analyst for Compaq, while Christie worked as a publicist and freelance writer.
On Sept. 11, Christie dropped off Jeff at Boston's Logan International Airport, kissed him good-bye and wished him a good trip. He was traveling to Los Angeles on business when American Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center. It was a week before his 43rd birthday.
A year later, the shock and hurt are still fresh.
"Some days I feel as awful as I did on Sept. 11 or Sept. 12," Coombs said. "The frequent laughter in the house is gone. The hardest thing is not hearing him laugh and seeing his smile."
Coombs decided early on that she had to keep things going for her children. Just four days after the attack, she made sure they were back on the soccer field, where they had spent so much time with their dad. The youth league suggested canceling those first games out of respect. She said no.
Coombs was a driving force behind the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund, a nonprofit group that has raised $1.6 million for the 177 families in the state who lost loved ones in the attacks.
Eric MacLeish, a Boston lawyer who started the fund, said as soon as they met, Coombs wanted to know what she could do to help other families.
"I was just amazed that this woman with three children and (the grief) she was living with -- that she would want to help us," MacLeish said.
"She just cares so much about what she can do out of this tragedy to make life better for people," he said.
Coombs has become a financial advocate for the families. She is an outspoken critic of the federal victims compensation fund, which she fears will shortchange many families through a formula that deducts life insurance and other death benefits.
"I'm not looking for money to have my floors redone or to beautify my house," she said. "I'm looking to continue to get my kids back to some sense of normalcy, so their lifestyle doesn't have to change significantly because their father died."
Still, so many things have changed that Coombs has trouble listing them all: Meals, bedtime, homework ...
Family vacations have a glaring hole. When Coombs and her children went to Walt Disney World with friends a few months ago, Meaghan cried as she watched happy families playing together in the pool.
"She said, 'It's not fair. Why can't we do that?' " Coombs said.
And there is worry. Coombs said her cell phone bill has gone from $30 each month to $200, because she and the kids check in with each other so often.
On the first anniversary of Sept. 11, Coombs plans to attend a formal state memorial and an informal get-together planned for the families.
She and her three children also plan to walk, run and in-line skate in a Sept. 14 memorial road race for Jeff, planned by people in their hometown. The family will have a memorial Mass for Jeff on Sept. 15, Christie's 42nd birthday.
Coombs said her children and her work for other families has kept her going, even on her worst days, when she feels like sitting in the house and crying.
"It is a way out of my 'wallowing,' as I call it," she said. "It helps keep Jeff's memory alive."