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A Much-Loved Daughter Lost in the Ashes of Sept. 11

The Meehan family still struggles with grief 10 years after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

"This is the hour of lead

Remembered if outlived,

As freezing persons recollect the snow —

First chill, then stupor, then the letting go."

                      —Emily Dickinson

 

Colleen Meehan Barkow and her mother JoAnn Meehan spent the weekend before Sept. 11, 2001, happily shopping for towels and linens for the 26-year-old's new home in the Poconos.

Colleen and her husband Daniel, married less than a year, were planning to move into the house at the end of October. It meant a long commute into New York, where Colleen worked as a facilities director for Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 103rd floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

But as JoAnn Meehan was helping her only daughter load the items into her Nissan SUV, she was overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of dread.

"I had this feeling something was going to happen," said Joann. "I knew it. I had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach something was going to happen."

Several days later, on the morning of Sept. 11, JoAnn was at her job as a paraprofessional at the Carteret Middle School. The principal came by the classroom and asked to see her out in the hallway.

"She said 'JoAnn, I know your daughter works in the World Trade Center,'" Meehan recalled. "'I just heard on the radio the Trade Center was hit by an airplane.' She sent me home."

Her husband Thomas J. Meehan III was already home. He had been laid off recently from his job at Schering-Plough and was working part-time as a security guard.

JoAnn told herself as she got into the car that it must have been a small sightseeing plane that had crashed into the building. Then she turned on the radio.

"I heard on the radio Tower One was hit by this huge plane," she recalled. "I think I went into shock. I have no idea how I made it home. I came in screaming."

The couple frantically turned on the television. The screen was black. The radio was out, phones were silent.

Carteret, close to lower Manhattan, received all telephone, television and communications from the massive antennas on top of Tower One. A friend lugged an ancient black and white television—complete with "rabbit ears" antenna—to the Meehan's home.

They turned it on. And Tom and JoAnn Meehan knew in an instant their daughter was probably gone.

Their house filled up with family and friends over the next few days. They manned cell phones, frantically calling hospital after hospital for news of Colleen.

"We didn't know if she was alive," Tom Meehan said.

One man who answered the phone at St. Mary's Hospital in Hoboken told the couple an injured female with the last name of Meehan had been brought in. For an instant, hope flickered.

"He got so excited," Tom Meehan recalled. "He thought he had a match."

But it wasn't Colleen. For days the family lived in a terrified limbo, not knowing whether Colleen was dead or alive.

"There was no sleep," JoAnn said. "We got used to eating burned food. I would try and cook and never remember when I put the food on."

On Sept. 17, 2001, the Meehans got their answer. The New York City Medical Examiner's Office called to tell them some of Colleen's remains had been found. Their daughter died of smoke inhalation.

"That was probably one of the most difficult trips we made," JoAnn said. "We have all the pictures from the medical examiner's office. We've never opened them. I couldn't do that. I wanted to remember her the way she was, not the way they found her."

Thus began the Meehan's long journey into grief, a journey that continues to this day. The couple were no strangers to losing a child. Their infant son Eric died four hours after he was born in 1973. Colleen's death sent them back down that dark path.

"I was in a walking coma for years," JoAnn said. "I walked around. I functioned. But I was in another world. It was just horrible."

Tom couldn't sleep. Early one morning, around 2 a.m., he checked his e-mail. There was a message from a gentleman who had made it his mission to photograph items that had been found near the World Trade Center and send the pictures to families who had lost loved ones.

The man asked Tom to visit the website he had set up.

Tom clicked on the website, then clicked on a picture. What he saw "put me in tears."

It was a photo of his daughter's battered Cantor Fitzgerald business card, charred around the edges, but still intact.

"That set us off," he said.

The Meehans steeled themselves for a trip to Ground Zero. They had to run a gauntlet of psychiatrists and psychologists before they could visit the still-smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers.

They were granted permission. The couple was escorted to the site by members of the National Guard. It was not an easy trip.

"I almost passed out," JoAnn recalled. "A fireman came over with an oxygen tank. I couldn't catch my breath, just to know my daughter was in that huge pile of rubble."

But they still go, year after year, anniversary after anniversary.

"It's a need to be near her," JoAnn says. "That's how I feel close to her. That's where she died. I just feel a need to be there. All the other families, we just all feel the same way. It's just a way to deal with it."

They will be at Ground Zero this year, along with their only surviving child, Daryl. Daryl, 42, was chosen to be a reader at the memorial service.

He has never recovered from his sister's death, JoAnn Meehan says.

"He's still not dealing with it," his mother says. "They were very close."

Daryl and his wife have three daughters, one of whom is named after Colleen. She bears a striking resemblance to her aunt.

"They know all about her," JoAnn said. "They know who she is. they know her picture. They know she died at the World Trade Center."

Ask Tom and JoAnn Meehan about closure and they both grimace. For them, the word has no meaning.

"Ten years you cry a river out," she said. "You get to a point where you still have the need to talk about it. So people don't forget."

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