October 27, 2021

Saving Break

Break Through With Legalicy

These 9/11 Families Have Grieved Without Their Loved Ones’ Remains

It seems strange to Jim Giaccone that he is 60 this year. He was 40 when his 43-year-old brother Joe, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, died on 9/11. “I’m 17 years older than he was when he was killed. The math just freaked me out,” Jim told The Daily Beast. “When I was 40 and he was 43, he was my older brother. Now he’s stuck at 43. I’m 60. It freaks me out he was so young.”

The Giaccone family has to date received no remains of Joe. Not to have remains was first “a little surreal,” says Jim. “Through my whole life, when there was a death there was a natural progression of grief. With 9/11, this massive step, having a loved one’s body, was missing. I didn’t realize how powerful that step was until it was taken away. We had memorials which were very important but not having that step was unnerving, and it was for many years.”

“Then stark reality sets in. I became friends with other families who didn’t have remains. I began to think: is it better to find a piece of a kneecap as opposed to a memory that you have of them, or a smiling face in a picture? It became more comforting to choose the image you wanted to remember your loved one by, rather than the horrific way in which they were murdered—a fragment of skin or minuscule piece of DNA which was off their shoulder—which would only reinforce the violent way in which they died.”

Family members who have never received remains of loved ones have conflicting, evolving feelings about it. In total, over 60 percent of World Trade Center victims have been identified, including remains that have been claimed by their families. Some 1,106 victims—of a total of 2,753 WTC deaths—remain unidentified (around 40 percent). Of the World Trade Center remains currently in the custody of the Office of New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), half are unidentified. The other half are identified but unclaimed, an OCME spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “Families have chosen to leave those remains in the custody of the OCME.”

In 2014, all the remains in OCME custody were moved to the repository adjacent to the 9/11 Museum in downtown Manhattan. That included both unidentified and identified remains from the DNA analysis that has been ongoing since 2001. All the remains held at the repository are taken for testing at the OCME’s laboratory in Kips Bay. The “vast majority” of identifications occurred within the first five years after the disaster, an OCME spokesperson told The Daily Beast.

Between 2006 and today, there have been fewer new identifications because the remains that are still unidentified are more challenging to analyze. This week, OCME announced two new identifications. Dorothy Morgan is the 1,646th person and a man whose name is being withheld at the request of his family is the 1,647th person to be identified. OCME says the two identifications are the first new identifications of World Trade Center victims since October 2019.

“The recent adoption of next-generation sequencing technology by OCME’s DNA laboratory promises to result in more new identifications,” OCME said in a statement this week. “More sensitive and rapid than conventional DNA techniques, next-generation sequencing has been used by the U.S. military to identify the remains of missing American service members.”

Charles G. Wolf kisses his wife Katherine’s name at the 9/11 memorial in New York City.

Tim Teeman/The Daily Beast

Every time Charles G. Wolf goes to the 9/11 memorial in downtown Manhattan, the first thing he does is go over to the plaque bearing the name of his dead wife Katherine above the pools of rushing descending water, bend down and kiss it. The last time he had seen her was that morning, kissing her goodbye at 8:06 a.m. She worked on the 97th floor of the north tower. The first plane flew over their Greenwich Village apartment and struck the building at 8:46 a.m., killing her.

“If someone looks at me when I kiss her name, I say, ‘It’s my wife.’ That’s when everything changes,” says Wolf. “When they realize I am a family member who lost someone, everything changes. Shock hits their faces. They say, ‘I’m sorry…’ ‘Did you?…’ Gentle, gentle questions. ‘Where was she?’ ‘Did you hear from her?’”

Wolf recalls a little boy, around 7 years old, who didn’t understand why the memorial was there. Wolf didn’t want to say too much, but his parents nodded at him to explain what he felt able. He tried to convey that many people had died here. Wolf always goes on her birthday, June 15, when the museum puts a white rose into each person’s name on the plaque. In the new movie, Worth, about the ultimately successful battle to secure compensation for 9/11 victims’ families and loved ones, Stanley Tucci plays Wolf, who played a key role in the campaign.

In 2004, Wolf recalls having brunch with a friend. Looking around the restaurant he saw a tin box on a shelf. He asked a waiter what it was. “Oh, those are the ashes of the owner’s wife,” the waiter told him. “Then it hit me. I don’t have anything of Katherine. It had never really struck me until then, and a sadness came over me. Maybe it had been subconscious all along. I don’t know how long it stayed with me. It bothered me because lots of people had something I could never have in losing her. After I started psychotherapy in 2005, maybe I dealt with it.”

I don’t have any remains, but I did get the benefit of knowing Katherine never felt any pain.

Charles Wolf

The reason why so many remains are identified, but unclaimed, said Wolf, is that families can receive “a speck here, a bit here, a bit more here, and have to keep opening up the grave of their loved one. The emotional trauma and the monetary expense is tremendous. Eventually, you get to the point of ‘OK, he or she has gone.’”

The identifications of the two new bodies this week didn’t affect Wolf in terms of raising hopes of recovering something of Katherine. “Right now I am completely at peace because I look at it this way. I don’t have any remains, but I did get the benefit of knowing Katherine never felt any pain. I do get the benefit of the fact she was never able to call me because it happened so suddenly she never knew it happened, so therefore I never had to hear her voice in terrible pain because she never was in pain.” Wolf pauses. “It takes time to get to that point.”

Michael Burke recalled how “disconcerting” it was going to the Armory on Lexington Avenue in the days after 9/11, desperately trying to find his brother William F. Burke Jr. (known as Billy), the much-loved and celebrated fire captain of Engine 21. Billy died, age 46, while trying to help two people to safety—and having directed his men away from the building to safety.

Billy Burke, middle, at his brother Christopher’s wedding. Chris is on the right, Michael, the left.

Courtesy Michael T. Burke

Extremely close, the brothers last spoke the Friday before 9/11, Billy telling Michael about an upcoming FDNY fundraiser. “Tell the boss (meaning Michael’s wife, Wanda), ‘Be there or be square,’” Michael recalls Billy saying. On the day itself, before he went to the burning towers, Billy spoke briefly to Wanda, to say to get out of the city (she and her husband worked in a midtown hotel). “Stay home, we’re under terrorist attack,” Billy told her. Billy called an ex-girlfriend after the collapse of the south tower to assure her he was still alive. “She begged him to stay safe,” his brother said. “He told her, ‘This is my job, and who I am.’ She said he sounded surprisingly calm. It was one of the things that gave us hope.”

A family center had been set up at the Armory, when there was still hope there might be survivors, and where records of those in hospitals were kept. There were hallways covered in fliers of those missing. A plainclothes officer said to Burke, “We honor your brother’s sacrifice,” which Burke found weird as the family hoped Billy was still alive.

“I was sat at a table, a Q-tip was swabbed inside my cheek, numbered, and carefully sealed in an envelope,” Michael recalls. “I asked why. ‘So we can match DNA,’ I was told. When my wife saw the look on my face, she asked what the matter was. I said, ‘They’re not looking for survivors. They’re not even looking for remains. They’re looking for DNA.’ You stepped outside and saw the whole impact of the thing. Families were winding around the block. Haze, smoke, that scent in the air. That was probably the moment I realized that Billy was dead.

I was not able to take Michael home. I have nothing. Other people found wallets, rings. But for me, nada, zip. Not having anything was tortuous.

Monica Iken-Murphy

“Firemen were saying there were voids in the ruins where they could be. We were calling the hospitals every night. There was this desperate hope. Forty-eight hours later, you knew it was not going to happen. From that day on, I really had accepted the idea we weren’t going to get a body or body part. It was surprising as time went on that we got nothing, I mean, everything was gone: his helmet, his big and heavy turnout coat. None of that. Nothing. Without a trace. That’s pretty remarkable.”

“Every day is 9/11 for me,” says Monica Iken-Murphy. Her first husband Michael was a bond trader at Euro Brokers, working on the 84th floor of the south tower. He died, aged 37.

“When you have no remains, it’s hard,” says Iken-Murphy. “If someone dies in a car accident, their loved ones can put that person somewhere. I was not able to take Michael home. I have nothing. Other people found wallets, rings. But for me, nada, zip. Not having anything was tortuous. The one thing Michael would have wanted is to come home to me. Home was his safety place. He was so attached to me, like Velcro. We had met on 9/11 in 1999 and had been married for 11 months. He was an atheist, I’m a Catholic. I always said to him, ‘If something happens to me, we will meet in this great big lunchroom in the sky.’ I would quiz him about it. ‘Where are we going to meet, Michael?’ ‘In the lunchroom, Monica.’”

“A picture doesn’t give you the sense of closure you have with other funerals”

Joe and Jim Giaccone were extremely close, and Jim only regrets the number of times he told his brother he was too busy to grab lunch. On the day itself, he could see the smoke from the attack on the north tower while on a construction site in Queens. “It literally took my breath away.” His father turned on the TV, to see the second plane smash into the south tower. He begged Jim not to go downtown. Jim drove to his father’s house and watched events unfold on TV. He called Joe’s phone number to no avail. Jim called his sister-in-law, Joe’s wife, who said Joe had called at 8:30 a.m. to make sure their kids had gotten on the school bus OK, and now she couldn’t get through to him.

“When the south tower collapsed, I was so overcome with helplessness I ran out into the street and was just screaming,” Jim says. “Then I watched what I knew to be my brother’s tower fall.”

Michael Berry, Billy’s nephew, said not having remains was “really hard” at the beginning. “He was missing. You held on to the hope that he would turn up someplace. He could be on Long Island, he had walked to New Jersey. It was a way to cling on to hope you knew wasn’t real.”

Billy’s funeral, says his nephew, didn’t feel like one. “A picture doesn’t give you the sense of closure you have with other funerals.”

In the longer run, it has come not to matter so much, says Michael. “After the first couple of anniversaries, I kind of forgot there was no body.” His parents visited the site two weeks after the tragedy, when fires were still burning. “They said it was like looking into hell.”

Michael Iken was convinced he was going to die young, Monica recalls. “In his mind, he thought he was dying. I told him he was going to live forever. His strange behavior escalated after Labor Day. He was adamant he would not attend a wedding of a friend in December. He became hysterical the day before, telling me I couldn’t come into the city on the 11th to visit a friend in the hospital.”

I know Michael is one of the remains in that space. I 100 percent know it, and I know he’s happy. I feel Michael in there. I feel that eventually all the remains will be identified.

Monica Iken-Murphy

That morning, Michael was excited because that day would be his last sailing class. Monica recalls him wearing “ugly brown sailing shoes,” which she later worried would impede him if he were running for his life. “Michael knew I watched Kelly and Regis, and called me to turn on the TV just before then. He said a commuter plane had hit the north tower. He said everything was under control, and that he had to go. He said, ‘I’ll call you back.’” Michael called back five minutes later to say they had been told to stay where they were. “Call my family and friends and tell them everything’s fine,” Michael told Monica. “I have to go. People are jumping out of windows.”

Monica got the phone book and saw the second plane hit the south tower. “It really was a moment where I thought it wasn’t happening. I was frozen. I tried to dial his number. I did it all day. It was busy, stayed busy. We didn’t have the internet and things we have now. It was like being in the worst nightmare.”

Monica Iken-Murphy and former husband Michael, who died on 9/11.

Courtesy Monica Iken-Murphy

Monica later fell asleep, and at around midnight had a dream that Michael had appeared at their red front door. “I jumped up, wrapped my legs around him. He said, ‘Monica, you were so right. It’s so beautiful here.’ Then I woke up. I didn’t know he was dead, but I knew it. I still looked for him. I was in denial.” Monica said God had also visited her, and told her she was going on a mission, and that mission was to not “let them build over dead people,” which led to her involvement in the development of the site and the creation of the 9/11 memorial.

Monica loves what the memorial site, museum, and repository offer her. “I know Michael is one of the remains in that space. I 100 percent know it, and I know he’s happy. I feel Michael in there. I feel that eventually all the remains will be identified.” As for herself, “I want to know. If they find it, I’ll take a piece. I just want to know he’s there. I don’t care if it’s a fragment, a nail. Just let me know.”

If I can tell a person-to-person story, and if I can make a little wrinkle in their brain and in that wrinkle lives my brother’s memory, he will never disappear.

Jim Giaccone

The hardest thing for Michael Berry, Billy Burke’s nephew, was seeing his uncle’s fire truck in the 9/11 museum, the front of it charred and mangled, the back half pristine. “Seeing it charred and remembering riding with him on it made everything much more real in the way a casket might,” says Michael. “It was something seeing the truck when it was fully functioning, and with all the happy memories and connotations I attach to it, and then semi-destroyed. It was lowered into the museum wrapped in an American flag. It looked like a coffin. The remains of that truck gave me the kinds of feelings real remains might have done. The museum has done a great job displaying it in the way they have.”

Jim Giaccone says he fully came to terms with not having remains of Joe through working as a volunteer for the 9/11 Museum. “I was able to make Joe come alive again. If I can tell a person-to-person story, and if I can make a little wrinkle in their brain and in that wrinkle lives my brother’s memory, he will never disappear. He will live in all these people I speak to. That has become a very powerful tool in my recovery and my acceptance. I tell my story, my recollections of that day, I bring them over and show them Joe’s name.”

Jim does not like the Repository where the remains are held. “It’s like walking into a dentist’s or doctor’s office. It’s very sterile-feeling. It’s just rows of specimen-like filing cabinets. In my mind’s eye, I thought it would be a sarcophagus, something tactile I could touch. In my fantasy, it would be a structure above ground between the two pools, accessible to just families. I would like to touch something, maybe because he isn’t here to touch.”

We can’t let the terrorists off the hook. 9/11 is the result of their actions, flying airplanes into skyscrapers, and people being in those buildings as 100 stories fell on them.

Michael T. Burke

Michael Burke, Billy’s brother, said “a number of families” didn’t like the unidentified remains being held at the repository. He doesn’t go to it. He would have preferred something like a “tomb of the unknown victim” reflecting the collective absence wrought by the tragedy. “We can’t let the terrorists off the hook; 9/11 is the result of their actions, flying airplanes into skyscrapers, and people being in those buildings as 100 stories fell on them. We have to remember who is ultimately responsible for this—the terrorists.”

For Charles Wolf, the remains are being taken care of “very respectfully” in the Repository. He was one of the family members that oversaw the remains’ transfer to the space.

If any of Michael Iken’s remains were recovered, Monica says, he would not want to be buried or cremated and ashes scattered. “No, no, he would fucking haunt me if I did that! If I put him in my purse and carried him around, he’d be happy with that. Maybe I would keep his remains in the repository, and take him later. I know that someone on the floor above him was identified, so I feel Michael’s identification is going to happen. And even if they don’t find anything, it doesn’t matter because I have this world-class, beautiful place to remember him.”

Monica married again and had two daughters, now aged 15 and 13. Michael started appearing and speaking to her younger daughter when she was 3, Monica says. She says Michael told her young daughter to tell Monica he still loved her. Her 3-year-old said to her, “Michael wants to know who you’re going to choose when you go to the lunchroom, because daddy loves you, and he (Michael) loves you.”

Michael has also appeared to Monica, she says, on three occasions. Once he appeared at the foot of her bed, and she managed to say, “Oh my god, thank you for coming,” before his form vanished. He has also appeared behind her in a mirror. “Whenever I need him he’s visible. Funny things happen too, like toys moving when they don’t have batteries,” she says.

“You move along, but you don’t stop loving somebody who was taken away from you”

Jim Giaccone recently watched one of Joe’s son Max’s digitized home videos from around 1993/1994—Max, who spoke to The Daily Beast recently, was 10 when his father died—and found it “terribly sad to hear his voice. I haven’t heard his voice in years. I was slightly ashamed I had forgotten his voice.”

At a Moth event in 2013, Jim told a powerful story about spiritually connecting with his brother via a mountain, first in a dream, then reality. He is pragmatic, he says, but when his niece got married a couple of years ago, Jim found himself thinking Joe should have been there, walking her down the aisle. “The grief and anger comes back real quick. The absolute helplessness and senselessness of it all,” Jim says.

I had been married to my wife for 20 years before September 11, 2001, and never cried in front of her. Now I cry all the time, at good and bad things.

Jim Giaccone

Jim and Joe’s parents—especially his father, who died aged 79 in 2011—“never recovered. They say a parent should never bury a child, and it is absolutely so true. To have this loved one murdered, and to have to watch it over and over and over again, is something you never get over. There was my family on September 10 and my family on September 12. I say my DNA changed that day. Everything I think about is balanced on before and after. If anyone says what a perfect day’s weather it is, it draws me into a vortex back to September 11, because that day was famously that. I used to look up at airplanes with a sense of wonderment. Then I saw them as missiles. I had been married to my wife for 20 years before September 11, 2001, and never cried in front of her. Now I cry all the time, at good and bad things.”

Charles G. Wolf and wife Katherine at Niagara Falls, 3 weeks before 9/11.

Courtesy Charles G. Wolf

After Katherine’s death, Charles Wolf’s father said to him, “I guess we have something in common, don’t we?” His father had lost his second wife to cancer and loved her dearly, says Charles. “To see my father’s eyes tear up after 25 years told me, ‘I guess I am going to be grieving a long time, probably the rest of my life.’ Grief doesn’t stop you from living life, or loving another person, but at some stage it pops up. You move along, but you don’t stop loving somebody who was taken away from you. You become functional again.

“Going through this has made me much stronger, and much smarter. I’ve taken my experiences and observations and wisdom gained from this, and used it working with other 9/11 family members. The ones who were hurt the most, without exception, were parents who lost a child.”

Katherine’s boss had asked her to go to work early that morning; he felt horribly guilty about this, and Charles reassured him that he shouldn’t.

“She was murdered that day, they all were,” says Charles. Two years ago at the anniversary commemoration the grief “ripped through me like a knife,” Charles said. Michael Arad, the 9/11 memorial’s designer, held him. “This has been going on for 20 years,” Charles says.

They may have gotten my wife, but they’re not getting the rest of my life. I will love again. I am not going to let those fucking terrorists take that away from me.

Charles Wolf

In the fog of grief soon after 9/11, Charles took a nap one day and smelled Katherine. His belief in God, his faith, has become stronger as the years have rolled on. “You come to understand you are not in charge. Something else is in charge. Of course I felt, ‘Why did God let this happen?’ But then I came to my senses, and thought, ‘It has happened. What am I going to do about it?’ When I watched the first tower fall, I guessed I was going to have to start life over again. A few seconds later, I had a vision of myself crumpled with depression in the corner. I just went, ‘No.’ I have been depressed. I refuse to be there.”

Wolf made a vow: “They may have gotten my wife, but they’re not getting the rest of my life. I will love again. I am not going to let those fucking terrorists take that away from me.”

Michael Burke recalls that Billy was a history buff, and particularly fascinated by Gettysburg. “I take a philosophical, even religious look at it—that Billy kind of disappeared into history, into sacrifice. At Billy’s service, my brother said, ‘It’s just dust to dust. What difference does it make how quickly you get there?’”

He is someone I still want to make proud. I wish he was still here. He was such a strong person in the family.

Michael Berry

Michael Berry had last spent time with Billy at the firehouse two weeks before 9/11 when he and an Irish boy who was spending the summer with the family visited Billy and went out on the rig with him. Michael isn’t “super-spiritual,” but he likes to think Billy is watching him “in a good way. He is someone I still want to make proud. I wish he was still here. He was such a strong person in the family.”

Billy was a “memento guy,” says his nephew, and so while he would find the recovery of “bits of his body” upsetting, he would love it if his badge, fireman’s helmet, or some other possession were found. He wears a ring of his uncle’s, which feels like a “security blanket” in difficult times—which is what his uncle was for so many in his life, says Michael, “a big-hearted caretaker.” Billy fittingly died a hero, his nephew says, trying to save the two men he was with, and directing his own men well away from the building, and the rig outside, so they would survive.

Every 9/11, Michael Burke, Billy’s brother, goes to the Engine 21 firehouse for a moment’s silence, and breakfast. There’s a plaque at the Long Island beach where Billy was a lifeguard for 25 years. He was hugely popular, “larger than life,” says his brother, and so stories are still exchanged by his friends. He stays vivid in many memories. His brother is immensely proud of the Tunnel to Towers Tower Climb, set up in the memory of Billy and firefighter Stephen Siller.

“I’m in love with a dead person, and love a person in reality, which is bizarre but that’s how it is”

Michael Berry feels close to his uncle Billy at the memorial site, and can see the Freedom Tower on his daily work to his local coffee shop in Jersey City. Sometimes he says “Good morning” to Billy; every day the view makes him feel close to his uncle. Billy would have liked the memorial, says Michael. “He liked public spaces, he liked people, he didn’t mind tourists taking his picture. He’d be thrilled.”

He was handsome, had many girlfriends—and stayed friendly with many of them after the relationship ended; three of his exes at his funeral remarked on what a “great butt” he had, says Michael. Michael, Billy’s brother, laughed that some of the exes found it “annoying he was on such good terms with his exes. You could have written a country song about it.”

If any of Billy’s remains were found now, it would be “jarring but comforting,” says Michael, his brother. “God knows what we would do. I would have to speak to my brothers and sisters. It’s very difficult. I’m not looking forward to that. I’m not hoping for it. I’m content as it is. I do know that Billy’s love of history, and his appreciation of the sacrifice of ordinary people, means that there is nowhere else on earth he would have rather been than inside that tower on September 11. Those were his last words: ‘This is who I am, this is my job.’”

Volunteering at the museum gives Jim Giaccone a sense of purpose, and he has mentored 9/11 kids who lost a parent that day through the non-profit Tuesday’s Children.

The museum, pools, and memorial site don’t make Jim feel close to Joe. “But it does give me peace.” He first went there on the tenth anniversary. He was also one of those reading out the victims’ names that day. “I was really anxious about how I would react. We didn’t have anything of my brother. Seeing his name etched on the panels, I didn’t know I would react. The best way I can describe it is that it was almost like a letting-go, a big, huge body sigh.

Brothers Joe and Jim Giaccone when young boys.

Courtesy Jim Giaccone

“When I go there, the sound and effect of the water has a calming effect on me. Even if I am not volunteering at the museum, I often engage with people and tell them about my brother and just try to make sure he’s never forgotten. It’s a very powerful connection, almost 100 percent positive. I tell them even if it’s only on September 11 that you remember Joe, he’ll never disappear. I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. It’s a very powerful thing when you’re trying to relay a story, and especially an emotion. You can definitely tell when people are absorbing that emotion and memory.”

I’m not over Michael at all, not in the slightest bit. There is no getting over the fact that I’m in love with a dead person, and I’m fine with that. I don’t know how to move on from that day.

Monica Iken-Murphy

Remarriage has been “complicated,” says Monica Iken-Murphy. “I lost my soulmate, and I also love my second husband. It’s not negative. I’m in love with a dead person. I was happily married. I also wanted to have children, and I wanted to be my second husband’s wife. I have incorporated Michael into this equation. Bob is not Michael, and Michael is not Bob. I’m in love with a dead person, and love a person in reality, which is bizarre but that’s how it is. I’m not over Michael at all, not in the slightest bit. There is no getting over the fact that I’m in love with a dead person, and I’m fine with that. I don’t know how to move on from that day. I feel like I am married to two men.”

This is “very difficult” for Monica’s second husband, although she says she was honest about how she felt from the moment they met. The nature of grief is ever-changing, she says; she is proud to have fulfilled her promise to God when it came to the 9/11 site. “I cry when I need to, but for me Michael is part of my life and part of my legacy. I miss him every day. I miss seeing his face, but I see him in all I do—so for me there’s joy in that sense.”

Charles Wolf still lives in the Greenwich Village apartment he and Katherine shared. Every morning he uses the butter dish that was part of a tea-set they received for their wedding. If he considers all the experiences he has had since her death, Charles feels that Katherine is at peace and has found Heaven to be a wonderful place. She is looking forward to Charles joining her, “but hopefully not soon.”

One thing Jim Giaccone has learned is that “there is no correct way to grieve or move on. Some people reached out to churches. I know my dad would have appreciated any remains of his son, and to have a grave to go to. Unfortunately, he was denied that. Some family members feel like him, and others feel like they don’t want to see the evidence of the brutal murder of their loved ones. It’s very individualized.

“I prefer the memorial pools to a cemetery,” Jim continues. “That is the last place Joe was alive. I find it more comforting at this point in my life. It’s the sounds, the water. At night, you can’t take your eyes off the stars. The trees lose their leaves in fall, and then there is rebirth in spring. The granite beneath your feet is solid, permanent. The water gives in to gravity, it doesn’t shoot up in fountains. I have a lot of anxiety that builds up, and when I go there I feel a release.”