NEW YORK – Charles G. Wolf was standing in the shade under a canopy of oak trees. A palm-sized Sony point-and-shoot camera hung around his neck. He had the look of a man collecting memories, gazing through his glasses and off into the distance.
It was just after 9 a.m. at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. Two by two, family members of the nearly 3,000 people killed here 15 years ago stood on a podium and read victim names. Flutes and violins provided a soft sonic backdrop.
It was sad. It was peaceful. For Wolf, it was something else, too.
“I have a lot of anger today,” said Wolf, who grew up in Buffalo until age 11 and now lives alone in New York City. For a long time, more than a decade, he wasn’t alone. He was married to the love of his life, a British woman named Katherine. She had “Welsh red hair,” a proper English accent and was the first woman to look at Wolf and say, “I love you.”
They were married in 1989 and had visions of building a thriving sales business together. As Charles developed an Amway business and Katherine assisted, she also worked in the corporate world as an executive assistant. On some mornings, including Sept. 11, 2001, her boss had asked her to start work a bit early, at 8:30 instead of 9 a.m., to get his day prepared.
She said yes – a courteous and, it turns out, fateful yes. She died that morning at 8:46, when the first airplane struck the floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower. Her office was on the 97th floor, precisely in the path of the plane.
One year ago, Wolf shared his story with me and our chief photographer, Derek Gee. We spent a day with him inside the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which is built underground beneath the site of the towers. Above ground is the memorial, with the names of every victim etched into a waist-high monument shaped into the dual square footprints of the former towers.
Every time Wolf visits the spot with Katherine’s name, he leans over and gives her a kiss.
“The families had a good week,” Wolf told me Sunday morning during the annual commemoration ceremony.
On Friday, Wolf was in Washington as the House unanimously passed a bill that allows victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia in United States courts. The Senate already passed the bill, which is now on President Obama’s desk.
Obama, however, may not sign the bill. The White House is reportedly concerned that it would dampen relations with Saudi Arabia and open the possibility for legislation there that hurts U.S. citizens.
“I wrote (the president) a letter last night,” Wolf said. “We’ll see what he does.”
It’s one more step in 15 years of work Wolf has done on behalf of families. Our story last year captured it: From New York to Washington, he advocated for proper compensation for families. He worked to ensure that the museum here on the Ground Zero site was developed properly and respectfully.
Wolf also shared with us his medical battles. He and Katherine lived in an apartment just a mile from the World Trade Center site. Wolf still lives there today, and says the years of toxins that entered his body after the attacks triggered long bouts of sickness. He’s been working on getting healthier and flushing the poisons from his system.
It’s working, he told me. “Now I feel good,’ he said. “My health has improved.”
And it’s not: Wolf has been coming down with a virus lately, one he hasn’t been able to shake.
“We recently discovered it was related to my emotions of not being able to help Katherine,” he said. “You don’t know these things until later. I’m working with a good psychotherapist to help clear those things away.”
This is the ongoing struggle, the extended grieving, of those who’ve lived with 9/11 loss. Things seem good — and then not. You feel good, experiencing love, peace and compassion. You crash in a deep well of anger and pain. We all live lives of permanent imperfection; theirs is more public and more pronounced.
“I’m tired of being alone,” Wolf told me. “I’m tired of just fending on my own. I’m tired of being strong.”
He paused; his eyes were steely and glistening. He’s been playing the strong role for 15 years. Fifteen accomplished, exhausting years.
“It sucks,” he said. “It really does.”
But Wolf hasn’t stopped. On the morning of the 15th anniversary, he stopped by the memorial on the southern end of Manhattan, then headed uptown to do a pair of readings at a service held by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Then it was back to the 9/11 memorial, hopefully in time to hear Katherine’s name read aloud.
“My sadness is as much about the horror” – his voice started breaking up – “of what happened that day,” he said. “Three thousand lives. It’s evil that we have to fight. Evil walks among us. And even though it’s family members in here, the Secret Service and other security people are watching like hawks. Because you just don’t know.”
He paused to show a picture he took minutes earlier of Donald Trump, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, downstate Congressman Peter King and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. (Hillary Clinton was present at the ceremony as well but left early; later it was learned she had come down with pneumonia.)
“Rudy Giuliani said in his book he wrote after 9/11, ‘expect the unexpected,’” Wolf said. “That’s what we have to do. We have to expect because this is a battle royale. This is a battle royale of good versus evil. People who want to destroy.”
Moments later, the former New York Gov. George Pataki, who was in office during 9/11, was seen. Wolf, who’d worked closely with Pataki on family-related needs, went over to say hello. Pataki embraced him. (Worth noting: Pataki, who briefly ran for president this cycle, spent considerable time hugging and kissing families at the back of the ceremony, away from the stage but in view of cameras. When reporters tried to interview him, he declined, motioning to the families, seeming to indicate he was there only for them.)
Those embraces are the beautiful moments Wolf still appreciates. So are the legislative victories, like the one won on Capitol Hill last week, but not secured unless the president signs it.
The 9/11 site itself, the place where Wolf’s life changed indelibly, remains special to him too. It was a place of death 15 years ago. Today, it’s not.
“Thank God we have this beautiful memorial,” Wolf said. “Look at this place. The trees. The waterfalls. It’s full of life.”