This essay, published on Friday, September 11, 2009, is exclusive to Notablog. Comments welcome (post here).
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LENNY: LOSSES AND LOVES
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Photo by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Born and raised on the West Shore of Staten Island, Lenny Trerotola has always loved sports, especially baseball, but he was just as captivated by the music and art that surrounded him as a youth. His dad was a musician and an artist, who made his living—and supported his family—giving guitar and flute lessons, while his wife worked diligently as a homemaker, raising her two kids, Lenny and his brother Michael. Lenny picked up the guitar when he was 10 years old, and started playing local clubs at age 14. He studied flute, saxophone, bassoon, and most of the wind instruments. Before too long, he'd added bass guitar and started taking voice lessons. He attended elementary, junior high, and high schools on Staten Island, and eventually majored in Musical Performance at Wagner College, and classical guitar at Brooklyn College. He'd go on to become a music teacher at New Dorp High School on Staten Island, and is currently Executive Director for High School Enrollment at New York City's Department of Education.
Inspired by his dad's example, however, Lenny looked to music as a professional undertaking, not only as a teacher, but as a performer. "I realized," Lenny observes, "that in order to guarantee that I would always work, I felt I should start singing. I always liked to sing but never thought I had a great voice. I ended up studying voice as well and have done fairly well as a musician and singer." In fact, he's been featured on several recordings, and has even recorded commercials, including a Kentucky Fried Chicken ad that has been seen throughout the world. He's played with many well-known 1950s and 60s recording acts in major venues, and loves arranging and orchestrating for musical theatre. Lenny's interests vary widely, however; he loves collecting sports memorabilia, has a deep interest in the study of language, and loves to read. "There's not enough time in the day to read about all the things I'm interested in," he says.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Lenny was at work in the Staten Island District Office of BASIS (Brooklyn and Staten Island High Schools). When he'd heard about the first plane that rammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, when he'd seen the first images coming through on a hastily hooked-up office television, he and his colleagues didn't suspect for a moment that the city was under attack. "Most seemed to think it was an accident, but were concerned about family members or friends who worked in the Towers or in Manhattan." His own concern was heightened by the fact that several members of his own family might have been endangered: his brother-in-law, who worked in Lower Manhattan, and his Uncle Frank (Merola), Cousin Rosemary (Wilkinson), and sister-in-law Lisa (Spina Trerotola), all of whom worked in the Towers. "I wasn't sure exactly which Tower they worked in or on what floor."
Once the second plane hit, however, Lenny and his colleagues all knew that something was gravely wrong. "After the first plane hit, I felt terrible but thought it was a horrible accident. After the second plane hit, I felt a sense of anxiety, not knowing what to expect next, and, anger ... This could not have been an accident!" Additional information was coming in, about plane crashes at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, and before too long, the White House was grounding all air traffic.
"We were trying to get information from the various media sources but by now everyone was trying to contact family members or those who might have some information." His Uncle and Cousin had worked on the lower floors and were able to get out of the buildings in a timely fashion. "My sister-in-law was not as lucky."
Lisa Spina came from a very close-knit family that included her dad (Mario), mom (Irene), and brother (Paul), and an extended family of uncles, aunts, and cousins (one of whom is actress Alicia Silverstone). Lisa was a graduate of Tottenville High School on Staten Island. She was an intelligent person and fun to be with, Lenny recalls.
Lenny's brother Michael met Lisa in 1983, when both of them worked as associates at Sears, Inc. in the Staten Island Mall. They married in 1987, and lived for a short time on Staten Island, eventually moving to Hazlet, New Jersey, where they began to raise a family. Their children, twins Amanda and Michael, were born in 1998. "Lisa was a very devoted Mom," Lenny says. "While the kids were babies, she continued to work every other week as an administrative assistant for the Port Authority, in order to supplement the family income. Unfortunately, for her, it was her turn to work on the day of the attacks."
remembers that the night before the attacks on the Towers, Lisa was up until 2
a.m., making decorative bags for Amanda and Michael. She loved arts and
crafts, and loved her kids very much.
Lisa worked on the 64th floor of the North Tower. A veteran of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, she had been hospitalized for smoke inhalation in its aftermath. This time, when the planes struck, she needed to walk down many flights of stairs to safety. Her dad had been in touch with her briefly by phone; Lisa was very upset that she and her co-workers were getting very little, and often conflicting, information. "Initially, an announcement was made indicating that employees should remain in their offices. Then they were told to leave the building. As they began to leave, another announcement was made indicating that they should stay. Finally, people began leaving as they sensed that something was terribly wrong." Before her descent down the doomed North Tower, Lisa spoke to her parents, and to her husband, Michael, by cell phone. She had asthma, along with many allergies, and could not move very fast; a colleague from her office later told Michael that he'd seen Lisa heading to a staircase different from the one he, himself, had taken.
With the South Tower having collapsed, there was even greater urgency for North Tower workers to exit the buildings. The family last spoke to Lisa about fifteen minutes prior to the catastrophic collapse of the North Tower.
In the wake of that collapse, "it was apparent ... that Lisa was among the missing," says Lenny.
It would be a while before the family would receive confirmation of her death; "some of her remains were found along with some of her jewelry."
Lenny soon discovered, however, that his cousin, Battalion Chief Joseph Grezlak (son-in-law of Uncle Frank Merola), and his friend, firefighter Allan Tarasiewicz, were also among the missing. Lenny remembers that "Joe was ... the epitome of the man who would give you the shirt off his back." He was a "great leader, who rose through the ranks of the FDNY, and understood the needs and problems of firefighters on every level." Lenny remembers Allan from high school; they'd spent much time together during those school years since they were both in the band. Allan played saxophone. Ironically, years later, Lenny would teach Allan's son at New Dorp High School.
Lenny had not known that his cousin Joe was at the scene, and missing, until the following day. And he didn't find out about Allan until some time thereafter. Allan had made a career as a firefighter, "a job he truly loved. ... Once I realized he was gone," says Lenny, "it was such an awful feeling. I knew his wife and taught his son. I can't think of a time when I felt more terrible. The same holds true of Joe and his family. I knew the personalities of these men fairly well. I can just picture them sacrificing themselves for everyone else. They are truly heroes in my eyes."
Reflecting back on the events of September 11th, Lenny states: "I don't know that you ever really get over it. We have to move on but we can't forget that infamous day. The lives of my family members, as everyone else who was impacted by this tragedy, are forever changed. Lisa's children, who were very young at the time, were never able to know their mother. My brother certainly struggled with this for a long time and continues to be impacted by the after-effects. My wife and children were upset for some time afterwards. Actually, I'm not sure that my kids knew how to handle it since they were 16, 11, and 9 at the time, and had not really had much experience with death yet. In my opinion, Lisa's family never recovered from this. I think we all managed to find strength in one another and did our best to help each other at all times." Still. Lenny finds it "striking that we never talk about the incident and what everyone went through. We may talk about those we lost but not so much about the tragedy itself."
Ground Zero is finally beginning to show signs of life again; the rebuilding has begun. Lenny thinks that "a permanent memorial should be created that appropriately recognizes all of the people who lost their lives on that day." For Lenny, "the memories of those who died should be preserved as well as the memorializing of one of the worst events in our history."
Fortunately, for Lenny, the beauty of music, art, and reading still shine within him. They have helped him, no doubt, to get through the tough days and months that followed September 11th. He continues to play his music and to perform, and he remains an avid reader. "My idea of utopia is a nice day on a beach, with a book, surrounded by my family, doing the same thing."
His vision of utopia has not altered, not even in the face of a tragedy whose effects will be felt by him and his loved ones for years to come.
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