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Finding Johanna: Tribute to One Uncle’s Beloved Niece

Fri January 13, 2012 - Northeast Edition
Pete Sigmund


Construction of One World Trade Center, also called the “Freedom Tower,” stands as a symbol of rebirth, like a phoenix from ashes.
Construction of One World Trade Center, also called the “Freedom Tower,” stands as a symbol of rebirth, like a phoenix from ashes.
Construction of One World Trade Center, also called the “Freedom Tower,” stands as a symbol of rebirth, like a phoenix from ashes. The names of those lost in 9/11 are engraved in bronze parapets above the pools. A pothole only temporarily delayed Pete Sigmund’s journey to his family’s observance of the 10th anniversary of the death of his niece, Johanna Sigmund, thanks to a kind business owner in Brooklyn.

About 50 relatives in our family had laid plans over several months to meet at a church in the Lower Village of New York City at 5 p.m. on Sept. 10. There, we would begin our observance of the 10th anniversary of the death of Johanna Sigmund, my niece, beneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

She was 25, beautiful, and had always smiled as she gave you her full attention.

The next day, a few of us were to visit the World Trade Center Memorial on the site of the Twin Towers, where Johanna was lost.

I had been at the hauntingly empty trade center site on the first anniversary of the attack in 2002 when my brother, John, and his wife, Ruth, laid roses at the site of the North Tower to commemorate the loss of their daughter. President Bush had walked forcefully down the ramp to the bare and windblown ground, where he hugged family members who stood around a flower-filled “circle of love.” This would be my first visit since then to a landscape dramatically and movingly improved in a massive construction effort. The years had passed awfully fast.

Driving up from my home in Ambler, Pa., (in suburban Philadelphia) with a friend, I was on schedule to meet my nephew, John Sigmund Jr., in Brooklyn on the 10th when, about 3:10 p.m., the left rear tire of my Hyundai Sonata hit a pothole on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. A flat! Deferred highway maintenance hits home. I rumbled off the expressway to a side street and called John, who was to guide me to the church through the right stops on the subway system. John was the main person coordinating the reunion and had to be at the church on time.

We arranged that if I couldn’t get the tire changed by 3:45, he would go ahead.

“If we can’t meet, take the F train from Grand Army to West 4th,” he advised.

I flagged down a police car.

“We need to get to a 9/11 family observance and I have a flat.”

“You’re in luck,” said the officer. “There’s a tire shop right around the corner.”

You couldn’t miss it. A sign on 39th St. read “Flat Tires Fixed” in large black letters against a yellow background.

The owner’s name was Rodriguez. You reached his office through stacks of tires looming overhead. I explained that I was on the way to a 9/11 observance. Coming out to the curb, he looked at the tire. He could have taken advantage of my desperation by trying to sell me a new tire but instead suggested a used one for $35. The pothole had cut the rim in one place. His assistants would look for a Hyundai rim. Otherwise, he would have to put on a temporary steel rim. I’m sure he knew by my accent that I wasn’t a local, but he was friendly, warm and concerned.

While his people searched through many piles of rims, I called my nephew on my cellphone and suggested he go ahead. I then asked a lady waiting for a tire how to reach the F train.

She advised me to turn on 4th Ave. and drive down about 30 blocks to the 9th St. station. Like every person we met that weekend, she was smiling and friendly.

I returned to the office. An assistant emerged from rim-land and held up, with a broad smile, a Hyundai rim. Three men put the tire and rim in place within minutes. I paid $110 in cash and was on my way down 4th. It was 4:25.

We couldn’t find a parking place near the subway station and I gave up hope of reaching the church on time. In desperation, I asked a woman, sitting behind the wheel of a van parked several feet out from the curb, if she knew where there was a parking place.

“You need parking?” she asked, smiling. “There’s one right here; I’ll move.”

The 9th Street station was nearby. The woman in the ticket booth smiled as she gave me a free return ticket since, at 81, I’m a senior. Soon we were on the F train. We emerged from the West 4th station at 5:20. Diagonally across 6th Ave., I could see members of my family standing on the front steps of St. Joseph’s Church. We had made it.

Family Remembrance

Before the service at the church honoring Johanna and others lost during 9/11, we gathered to view a bronze plaque, which my sister, Katy, had recently rediscovered at the church. It honored our maternal grandmother, who had died several days after giving birth, by Caesarean section, to my mother. The longstanding family story was that she chose to lose her life rather than have the baby die.

Katy had placed a vase of white roses in front of the plaque, which read:

In loving memory of our daughter

Mary Josephine O’Donnell Ramsey

A loving child, a devoted wife and mother and a steadfast friend of this church.

Died Feb. 28, 1904.

Our family occupied the first three pews in the white church, built in 1834, with its old-style balconies similar to those in St. Paul’s Chapel and Trinity Church near the trade center site. John and Ruth, who lived in Wyndmoor, Pa., participated in their usual simple, reverent way. I have always marveled at their acceptance through the anguish of losing a beautiful and accomplished daughter. She had completed the New York Marathon in October 2000. John had proudly met her at the finish line. Johanna had been a tri-varsity athlete at the Springside School in Chestnut Hill, Pa.

I loved looking at the colorful church windows from the 1870s, knowing that my grandmother, grandfather and mother had looked at the same windows.

Our parents, Marie and Paul Sigmund, had six children. (They had met in 1924 after my father, standing forlornly outside a fundraising dance for Al Smith in Washington Square, was invited inside by his future father-in-law, Clarence Ramsey, an appraiser for Tammany Hall. Smith was making his first run for President.) Five of their children, including me, the second eldest, are alive. We grew up in Wyncote, Pa. The party included about 15 of our own kids, plus several of our grandchildren, who would be Mary Josephine’s great-great grandchildren.

After the service, we piled into cabs and met for a catered dinner in a chandeliered second-floor room of the Henry St. Settlement House, not far from the Williamsburg Bridge. Including our own children, and our grandchildren, about 45 people were there. One was Joseph Bonavita, who had been engaged to Johanna when she died. He had emerged from a subway on Sept. 11 just in time to see the first plane hit the North Tower.

Joe is now married, with a young son. He had flown up from his home in New Orleans for the anniversary.

“Today was the first time I returned to the World Trade Center site,” he told me. “I just couldn’t do it for 10 years. It really helped to have my son with me.”

Midway through the buffet dinner, John Jr. stood up.

“Many people talk of my losing Johanna, my sister,” he said, “but I have been finding Johanna in many places, from the unexpected smile of a person on the subway, to the wind at my back while I’m running and most of all in the resoluteness and love of my parents and the love which you and others have shown.”

In one of his e-mails planning our family observance, John Jr. had written: “We honor Johanna’s vibrant life by sharing in the joy and love of each other’s company.” That’s how we all found Johanna that night.

John Jr. had offered us his two-bedroom apartment in a brownstone on St. Mark’s Ave. in Brooklyn. (He slept on a couch at the apartment of a relative of Ruth’s, where John and Ruth spent the night.)

We returned to Brooklyn via the F train. I slept very soundly (except for a cat meowing at my barred window).

We had arranged to meet my brother, John, about 10:15 on Sunday morning, the 11th, at the north entrance to the trade center site to receive a pass to the Sept. 11 Memorial at the once-devastated trade center site. I planned to drive to Manhattan and park some place on Broadway.

I asked a middle-aged man named Quinton Silvers who was walking a small dog: “Do you know where the Brooklyn Bridge is?” (I meant did he know the way to the bridge.)

“Are you kidding?” he replied. “I’m from Brooklyn.

“Don’t drive; take the 2 or 3 train to Chambers St.,” he said with the friendliness, which I experienced everywhere that weekend.

Then he reminisced.

“I grew up with the Twin Towers,” he said. “They were like a beacon. You would watch them. They would swing and sway. We always connected them with the number 11. ’Look at 11 in the sunset,’ we would say. My son’s godmother was crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, on the way to the hospital to have her baby, when she saw the first plane hit. She made it to the hospital. Now she has a son whose birthday is 9/11.”

We took the 2 train and asked a young man in a fireman’s blue dress uniform about the best stop for the trade center. His name was Brendan Gorman.

“I am one of three sons who are firemen,” he said. “My father and grandfather were also firemen. I completed my training the day before 9/11. We all partied that night. I wasn’t scheduled to work on 9/11 itself since graduation was scheduled that evening. Instead, 9/11 turned out to be my first day as a regular fireman. I had to go into buildings and look for people. As we carried one person, covered with grey soot, out on a gurney, I fell into a hole and injured my leg and had to be helped out myself. Our ladder company 105 lost seven men that day. Today, we’ll march back across the Brooklyn Bridge carrying seven flags for the seven men. The 10-year anniversary is the pinnacle. I’m afraid 9/11 will be more and more on the back burner, like Pearl Harbor.”

Peaceful Memorial

The entire area around the Sept. 11 Memorial site was barricaded. My brother was at the memorial itself and couldn’t meet us near St. Peter’s Church on Barclay St. as planned. We talked to the New York policeman at each barricade. One after another, with great courtesy, they escorted us to the next point until we reached a desk where we identified ourselves as part of the Sigmund family group, were searched and finally received blue ribbons allowing us to proceed.

At the site, hundreds of family members stood patiently and silently as they waited to be admitted in a special observance a day before the memorial opened to the public. Many wore T-shirts with color pictures of a wife, son, daughter, husband or other victim. Many shirts bore messages or poems. A bell tolled at 10:28 a.m., the time when the North Tower fell.

Where there had been bare ground and swirling dirt in 2002, now the 16-acre trade center site was green and serene. The footprints of both the North Tower and South Tower were now defined by square enclosures. Streams of water fell softly down the walls of each square into a memorial pool at each site, and then down into a smaller square opening. Peace.

The enclosures were in a park-like setting of green lawns, 200 sweet gum and swamp white oak trees, and the “survivor tree,” a Callery pear, which was found growing in the rubble and which had been transplanted to the site.

The names of those lost in 9/11 were engraved in bronze parapets above the pools. We reached John, Ruth and John Jr. at the North Tower site, near Johanna’s name. She had worked for Fred Alger Management Inc., and the names of co-workers who also died were near hers. They included “Dianne T. Signer and her unborn child.”

Hundreds of people of all ages stood around the rim, conversing quietly to the soft sound of the falling water.

Construction Continues

Construction of 1 World Trade Center, also called the “Freedom Tower,” had stopped for the observance. This building, a symbol of rebirth, like a phoenix from ashes, loomed to the north above us, steel and concrete for its first 20 floors, and enclosed in clear glass for the next 50 floors. (A concrete central core provides extra strength.) Construction had reached 80 stories and was continuing at a rate of about one floor a week. (It reached 88 floors at the beginning of December, with topping of the 105-story structure slated for February or March. The tower, including interior offices, is to be completed in 2013 and will reach 1,776 feet, including its antenna, becoming the third-tallest skyscraper in the world, with an observation deck at 1,362 ft.).

The design of the new tower has been compared to a large sloping block with its corners carved off. The building’s faces will be huge triangles that taper towards the top and bottom, forming an octagon at the center.

The large entrance pavilion for a below-ground 9/11 museum, which is to be completed at the end of 2012, stood between the two memorial pools. Construction continues on the museum and a transportation hub that will connect city subways, an underground commuter line from New Jersey and office buildings via underground corridors.

Construction also continues on the 72-story 4 World Trade Center (Tower 4), which is to be completed in 2013. Tower 2 and Tower 3 (2 World Trade Center and 3 World Trade Center) also will be built if there’s enough market demand and financing.

Johanna was found outside the North Tower. She had felt sick that morning, resisted her roommate’s advice to stay home, left late from her apartment at 729 2nd Ave., probably ran to the subway, and could have arrived at the tower about the time it was hit.

In a little-known part of the 9/11 tragedy, doctors and nurses had established a triage unit in front of the Millenium Hotel after the North Tower was attacked. Here they treated people from the ground around the North Tower, believing the site was safe from falling debris. However, the South Tower, attacked later, fell first, before the North Tower. It fell partly sideways, covering the unit, medical personnel, ambulances, police and whatever survivors were being treated, with dust and debris. Perhaps Johanna was there. (At least 100 people were killed at street level during 9/11.)

Father Raymond Nobiletti, pastor of the nearby Transfiguration Parish in New York’s Chinatown had run to the North Tower and was ministering to people at the triage site when the South Tower collapsed. He told parishioners that the site was in “complete darkness” for five minutes after the collapse and that he found his way to safety by pulling himself along the iron fence of St. Paul’s Chapel.

“A policeman told me to get out and I headed towards Broadway,” he said. “He saved my life. If I had stayed there, I would have been crushed in falling debris from (the later collapse of) the North Tower.”

We are sending Father Nobiletti a photo of Johanna on the slim hope that he may have seen her.

One thousand construction and rescue personnel, plus at least 2,000 support people, labored in dangerous debris around the clock finding Johanna and some other victims, plus a few survivors. The Trade Center Memorial honors both those who died and also is a tribute to the mammoth excavation and construction effort that followed.

We walked to St. Paul’s Chapel where many hundreds of white ribbons, inscribed with messages about 9/11, hung from the black wrought iron fence in front of the church. Here, where George Washington once worshipped, visitors walked reverently past a priest’s vestment covered with many patches from fireman and police emergency response teams throughout the world.

We dined with John, Ruth and John Jr. before returning to my car in Brooklyn via the 2 train and then driving home, avoiding the potholes.

Warmth, shared grief, generosity and sacrifice followed 9/11, when the nation mourned the loss of almost 3,000 people. That spirit was alive again everywhere we went during the 10th anniversary observance, and will continue.

(John and Ruth have established a scholarship fund in Johanna’s memory to help needy inner city children in North Philadelphia. Donations may be made to St. Malachy’s School, 1419 North 11th St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19122.)