Montclair’s 9/11 20th anniversary speaker: ‘I have to bear witness’
By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
Diana Stewart lost her husband, Michael Stewart, during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center. That same day, Michael, 42, had started a job as a senior executive at a financial trading firm, Carr Futures.
It’s a day Stewart, of course, will never forget. But as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, she said remembering what happened after the attacks matters as well.
In the days, weeks and months following, she took solace in the goodwill of a community eager to help her and her children — “the very good and brave neighbors, men and women and children, who were a comfort for us.”
Soon after 9/11, a neighbor overheard one of Stewart’s sons saying he wished he could play with his best friend. The neighbor immediately brought her son over to Stewart's house to play with her son, to give him some sense of normalcy.
“That’s the kind of stuff that makes a community function, and function well. That kind of generosity, to go to a home where there’s suffering and confusion,” Stewart said.
Stewart saw people in town, in particular women and friends who were mothers, come to her home to show their sympathies and offer some type of relief.
“When I needed someone to stay in the house with my children so I could go into New York and just try to find anything about Michael, I was supported by women who made resilience possible for me because they came right along with me,” she said.
She also remembers the outpouring of love she saw during the fifth anniversary of the attacks. She went with her young children to New York City for the ceremony there, and was moved by the policemen and firemen from around the world who lined up in the footprint of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
“People came from other parts of the country — therapists, police officers, detectives, all kinds of clergy from all kinds of faiths came together. A lot was lost, but all was not lost,” she recalled.
Gifts came in from strangers. Stewart received a little quilt from Australia, and objects made and painted by children.
That support made the grieving process easier, but the grieving never went away. Year after year, during commemorations, as Stewart told her story to journalists and at memorial ceremonies, it never became easier.
This year, at Montclair’s 20th anniversary commemoration at its Watchung Plaza 9/11 memorial, Stewart will speak, as she has several times before.
Eleven Montclairians died in the attacks. Councilman Bob Russo, who’d been mayor at the time of 9/11, said just a few families remain in the area. Montclair Local worked with Russo to contact any families interested in speaking for this piece, but so far, those other than Stewart declined or could not be reached.
Each year, the families are also contacted to speak at Montclair’s 9/11 service. As the years passed, many families declined, sometimes because they’re not available, and sometimes because the idea seemed too painful, Stewart and Russo said.
Howard Kestenbaum’s wife, Granvilette, and daughter, Lauren, have spoken at some past ceremonies. Lissa Collins, wife of Michael Collins, 38, typically places a lei at Montclair’s memorial in remembrance of her husband, Russo said.
And Stewart, who still lives in Montclair, still attends many years not because she wants to, but feels a duty to.
“It’s always difficult. It never gets easier. It never becomes a routine,” Stewart said. She understands others may not want to attend, or may not be able to. “But like survivors of all kinds of trauma, I feel like I have to bear witness until I don’t have to.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Russo had been starting his day when he saw in the news what was unfolding in lower Manhattan.
“I stayed home and watched from a distance and said ‘Oh my God, this is terrible,’” he recounted.
In 2001, Russo visited with each family who lost loved ones, he said.
“Everybody was coming over,” Russo said. “A lot of them knew each other because their families got to know each other because the husband worked in the towers and would commute to New York together.”
Each year, the crowds at the commemorations have dwindled, with fewer people showing. Russo hopes this year's ceremony will have a big turnout.
And even if it doesn’t, Russo said, he will continue to commemorate the fallen victims until he is unable to do so.
“Most people will say, ‘Well, that’s kind of forgotten.’ Well, I’ll never forget it as mayor [at the time of the attacks],” Russo said. “I’ve made sure that something needs to be done to remember 9/11 because it’s something that I will not let go. The other families will not be forgotten by me personally. Montclair always remembers.”
Montclair, Essex ceremonies
Montclair and Essex County will each commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In Montclair, Councilman Bob Russo and other township officials will hold a ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 11 at 10 a.m., at the 9/11 memorial in Watchung Plaza. Russo, who was mayor of Montclair at the time of the attacks, will preside over the commemoration. Diana Stewart, who lost her husband Michael Stewart on 9/11, will speak on behalf of Montclair’s 9/11 families.
A special invocation will accompany the traditional reading of the names of the nine Montclair residents who died on 9/11.
Essex County will hold the annual "Essex County Remembers" ceremony at the Eagle Rock Reservation 9/11 memorial at 8 a.m. The ceremony will be live-streamed at essexcountynj.org and at facebook.com/EssexCountyExecJoeD
The program will include family members who lost loved ones in the tragedies, elected officials and clergy members from diverse religious faiths.
Montclair residents lost on 9/11
Michael Collins, 38, was manager with Cantor Fitzgerald. He moved to Montclair in 1997 with his wife Lissa. He was also an avid skier, snowboarder and rock climber.
Caleb Arron Dack, 39, was vice president and director of global sales and alliances, Encompys. He wrote loopy poems and complex business software. Dack was attending a trade show at Windows on the World on 9/11. He lived in Montclair with his wife Abigail and their two children.
Emeric J. Harvey, 56, founder and president of Harvey Young Yurman Inc. His relentless energy made him a natural leader. On Sept. 11, Harvey was at a weekly breakfast meeting at Windows on the World. He lived in Montclair with wife Jennifer.
Scott Johnson, 26, was born and raised in Montclair. He graduated from Montclair Kimberley Academy. In March 2000, he joined the investment banking firm of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. Johnson was adventurous and loved to travel. He is survived by his parents, Ann and Thomas S. Johnson of New York and Montclair.
Howard Kestenbaum, 56, was senior vice president with Aon Corp. Kestenbaum was an avid baseball fan, active at his temple and cared deeply about the homeless. He moved to Montclair in 1985 with his daughter Lauren, and wife, Granvilette.
Robert M. Murach, 45, worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. He grew up in Brooklyn and lived in Montclair with wife Laurie and daughters Madison and Hayley. He loved scuba diving and golf.
David Pruim, 53, was a senior vice president for the Aon Corporation. He lived in Montclair with wife Kate and their daughter, Carrington. He was described as the most gentle 6-foot-4 person ever.
Ronald Ruben, 36, worked for Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. He loved to fix and build things. Ruben graduated from Montclair High School, but lived in Hoboken.
Michael Stewart, 42, had just started a job as a senior executive at a financial trading firm, Carr Futures on Sept. 11. He had a deep love for rugby and other sports, but his love for his sons was greater.