The Magazine

A Year of Firsts and Lasts

From the September 16, 2002 issue: Edlene LaFrance remembers her husband, murdered by Mohamed Atta.

Sep 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 01 • By MATT LABASH
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I met Edlene LaFrance on the worst day of her life. Or maybe it was the second worst, or the fifth, there are so many to choose from now. Two days after the Twin Towers fell, her 43-year-old husband, Alan, lay buried at the bottom of one of them. Though the city was awash in acts of unparalleled selflessness, I'd spent that morning thinking selfishly, walking the ash-caked streets of lower Manhattan, trolling for battle-scarred humanity to fill my notebooks before deadline.

On a bum tip, I rushed to the Chelsea Piers, where ambulances full of recovered wounded were rumored to be arriving. When I got there, a bystander scoffed at my naivete. "There aren't any more wounded," he said, letting the thought finish itself. Another reporter suggested the action had moved cross-town to the National Guard Armory on Lexington, and indeed it had. The street outside the building looked like a third-world bazaar. Except instead of merchants peddling trinkets, family members were holding "Missing" posters, begging for whereabouts and clues, as if their loved ones had gone down to the corner for a pack of cigarettes, then had forgotten the way home.

The media were supposedly barred, but I slipped inside the building. In all the chaos, it was about as difficult as crashing Penn Station. Hundreds of family members sat in rows, their bodies racked with tension and slicked with sweat in the un-air-conditioned hall. Amidst this grimness, I scouted for the most approachable faces, which belonged to Edlene, her son Jody, and his wife, Camille.

I asked if I could follow their family through this process, and they graciously assented. Edlene clutched a photo of her husband in his white wedding tuxedo. Their 21st anniversary was in two weeks, and on the morning of September 11, for some reason, she'd come close to giving him his biggest present early--a new wedding ring.

We made polite chat over grief counselors' incessant offerings of sandwiches and Sprite. Edlene quipped that she could use some tranquilizers instead. She answered all my questions dutifully, but her eyes kept drifting to the archway at the front of the room. It was there, down a staircase, that 20 people at a time were being taken to scour two lists--the first indicating that their loved one had turned up hospitalized, the second that they'd turned up dead.

When it was the LaFrance family's turn, we went downstairs. A Red Cross volunteer offered to look for Alan's name. Edlene, a portrait of poise a few minutes earlier, simply laid her head down on a table while her son sat beside her, stroking her hair. Alan didn't turn up on the deceased list, but he wasn't on the hospitalized list either. A deductive silence enveloped us--the sound of someone's life coming undone.

A year later, as journalists and grief groupies again jostle for a piece of 9/11, it's tempting to sit back and chortle at excesses and opportunism. God knows the last year has seen enough of them: American Paper Optics issuing "Images of 9-11 in 3-D," the commemorative cigarette lighter with a flame flickering right over a picture of a burning World Trade Center, the "9/11: 24/7" mock-tribute album from drag-queen Tina C. featuring songs like "Stranger on the Stairwell" and "Kleenex to the World."

Still, as we congratulate ourselves on how life goes on in all its wretched excess, there are thousands like Edlene. Her life actually has changed, and will remain that way beyond any news cycle.

I catch up with her at an apartment building that sits next to a noisy highway in the Bronx. A landlord's letter posted in the lobby cautions residents not to let their pets urinate in the stairwell. She welcomes me at the door, and says that she has lost some weight and some hair since we last spoke, but she is just as I remembered: diminutive and dignified, her warm voice accented with a steel that suggests she is being brave by necessity, if not by nature. Her rent is $709 per month, and it seems a bit steep for the two rooms she inhabits. They're the same rooms she lived in with Alan. And in a way, that $709 is what got him killed.

An audio/visual technician, Alan freelanced all over the city--primarily doing conferences at a New York public library and at the Windows on the World restaurant on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center. Edlene could always tell to which job her husband was headed by what he was wearing. If he was off to the library, he'd wear casual clothes. If it was the World Trade Center, he'd put on a black suit. The library gig was more lucrative, but his employer took too long to pay (six to eight weeks).