Garden City’s Wounds Linger 15 Years after 9/11

Newsday - September 09, 2016

by Martin C. Evans

Eileen Castellano remembers the funerals at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Garden City in the days and months after Sept. 11, 2001. One after another, after another, after another.

Castellano, 82, whose husband, Stephen, taught Chaucer and Shakespeare at Garden City High School, knew the families of more than a dozen victims, including former students and a school colleague whose twin sister was killed.

“My husband and I came to every one,” she said of the memorial services and funerals that continued for months at St. Joseph’s, as the remains of more victims were discovered and identified. “So many people would come you couldn’t get in the door.”

The many funerals attended by the Castellanos in Garden City were repeated across Long Island, as community after community buried its dead from the terror attacks. In all, 455 residents of Nassau and Suffolk were among the more than 2,700 people killed when airliners hijacked by the al-Qaida terror group slammed into the World Trade Center.

Garden City, a 5.3-square-mile community of some 23,000 people, stately homes and a handsome village center where people stop to chat on their way to the CVS Pharmacy on Franklin Avenue, or over paper-cup sundaes outside the Baskin-Robbins on Seventh Avenue, lost 23 of its residents.

As the 15th anniversary of the attacks is remembered next Sunday — with a special Mass at St. Joseph’s and the ringing of a bell for each victim in a village park — Garden City still feels the deep hurt. “I think Garden City stands out in the scope of its grief,” said the Rev. James P. Swiader, who for the past five years has been assigned to St. Joseph’s. “So many of those who were killed were young fathers and newly married who left young children behind. 9/11 is still a very big part of the life of this community.”

The morning of Sept. 11, the doorbell rang at the rectory of St. Kilian Roman Catholic Church in Farmingdale, where Swiader was then assigned. Two New York City firefighters stood at the door — their uniforms covered in gray ash, their visages smudged except for where their masks had been.

They asked the priest to come with them to the Massapequa home of New York City Fire Chief Peter J. Gianci, who had been outside Tower 1 of the World Trade Center when the 110-story building collapsed, and had not yet been found under the enormous pile of rubble.

Swiader said he presided over the funerals of about seven 9/11 victims at St. Kilian’s. Moving to St. Joseph’s in Garden City did not remove him from the sorrow. Today, he ministers to the lingering pain among parishioners at St. Joseph’s, which handled funerals for 20 victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Castellano said for many in the community, St. Joseph’s became a peaceful refuge. She recalls attending a regular 9 a.m. Mass months after the terror attack, and seeing a man still consumed by grief.

“The tears were just rolling out of his eyes,” she said. “It just affected so many people.”

Garden City resident Mary Mathers was a teacher at the Stratford Avenue elementary school, and witnessed grim parents arriving to pick up their children in the aftermath of the attack.

She remembers a father who had come to retrieve his child from the school. His wife was missing, and was later identified as among the dead.

“I just remember seeing him sitting on the curb outside the school with his head in his hands,” Mathers said. “It’s not something that you forget.”

Fifteen years ago, Steven Eckna was a trader working for Credit Suisse in New York. His brother, Paul, worked as an international equity trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, which was headquartered atop One World Trade Center.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Steven Eckna’s phone rang.

“A friend called and said, ‘I think I just saw a plane hit the World Trade Center,’ ” said Eckna, 47. “I hung up and dialed Paul, but I only got a busy signal. I couldn’t get through.”

For days, his family held out hope that Paul had gotten out. They checked every hospital and carried posters with Paul’s picture during trips to Manhattan. But a few days after the collapse, Cantor Fitzgerald’s CEO Howard Lutnick told a stunned gathering of family members the horrific news.

Eight Garden City residents were among the 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees who perished in that day’s attack — more than two-thirds of the company’s 960 workers.

“There had been some hope . . .” said Eckna. “But at that point, you knew it was over.”

Eckna, who was born in Garden City, graduated in 1986 from the same Garden City High School where his brother had played football, and who is now raising a family of his own there, said the community’s small-town feel helped him recover from his grief.

“People would stop you in the grocery store or on the street and share experiences they had with Paul, things that were important to them that let me know they were thinking of me or thinking of Paul,” Eckna said. “It wasn’t intrusive at all.”

“The stories were therapeutic,” he said. “You’d walk away reminding yourself of what an impact he had. It really was just magical.”

Meg Morgan Norris, the publisher of the family-owned Garden City News, said the challenge of telling the story of such widespread grief without intruding on people’s privacy was overwhelming.

“You just didn’t know where to begin,” said Norris, 52.

Norris has deep roots in the community. Her parents, Mary and Bob Morgan, bought the weekly newspaper out of bankruptcy in 1974, and moved the family there when she was 11.

In the first years following the tragedy she allowed families to submit photos and biographical material along with stories of the village’s victims.

“There is still a lot of sensitivity writing about it,” Norris said. “The people who were most affected want to maintain their privacy. We didn’t want to pry into their grief.”

The town still does things to commemorate the dead.

A marble memorial — etched with the image of the Twin Towers and the names of each of Garden City’s victims — stands in a park near the corner of Stewart and Hilton avenues. Each year, town residents assemble near the park’s white picket gazebo and listen as the Garden City Fire Department sounds a bell for each resident killed in the attack.

Five blocks from the park, St. Joseph’s is dedicating its 10:30 Mass next Sunday to the lost. A church committee has organized a ceremony, which will include a white rose to symbolize each of the victims. Each name will be read aloud.

“People bounced back by sticking together, and trying to give the families who lost as much as possible,” said Garden City Mayor Nick Episcopia, whose two children attended high school with victims of the attack. “There were people who brought food, there were people who just talked.”

Larry Tremsky, the director of music at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, recalled a special service a day or two after 9/11 that filled the church’s 550-seat capacity.

“For weeks and weeks after that everyone seemed quiet and muted,” Tremsky said. “Even that Christmas, as we were preparing, I remember someone saying, ‘I’m angry it’s Christmas because it just doesn’t feel like Christmas.’ ”

A year after the terror attack, Eckna and two of his friends formed a memorial golf outing to raise money for projects around town.

Now an annual event, the Paul R. Eckna Memorial Golf Outing and Dinner Dance has raised about $400,000 since its beginning, Eckna said. Among other things the proceeds have been used to purchase a computer system for the town’s library and one of the public schools, as well as provide scholarship money for area students.

“Death happens in small communities all the time, so for people to put Paul’s death on a pedestal, I always felt a little guilty about all the attention we got because he died on 9/11,” Eckna said of the outpouring of support from fellow Garden City residents. “But I think he would have been proud of the outing.”