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Tragedy from a widow's perspective

As the nation marks its fourth anniversary, the heartbreaking images of the attacks of Sept. 11 are overlaid by those of a new national tragedy born of weather, poverty, neglect and indifference.

Unlike previous years, on this anniversary it is impossible to read an account of Sept. 11 except through the lens of the new crisis, Hurricane Katrina.

When witnesses begin to share their accounts of Katrina's impact, we must hope that some prove to be as intelligent and insightful, honest and humorous as Marian Fontana.

In the opening pages of "A Widow's Walk, a Memoir of 9/1 1," Fontana, a New York City actress, comedian and writer, plunges directly into the harrowing loss of her firefighter husband, Dave. Her tale begins with the biting irony of the date (their wedding anniversary) and the numbing fact that like so many rescue workers, Dave jumped on the truck even though the call came in after his overnight shift ended.

Fontana's story proceeds almost minute by minute at first, detailing her gradual realization of the attack as she waits for Dave to meet her to begin their anniversary celebration together. We share her devastation at seeing the towers fall and we wait for the phone call we learn Dave has promised.

On June 17, 2001, after firefighters died in a wall collapse during a fire in Queens, Dave Fontana told his frantic wife, "I promise if anything like this happens again, I'll call. If you don't hear from me in 20 minutes, then you can worry."

Of course, no call comes on Sept. 11, and after the 20 minutes pass, Fontana writes, "Twenty minutes, and he would have found a phone. I know the truth. I can feel it in the center of my cells and the core of my heart. Dave is dead. He was about halfway up the South Tower when he heard a crack, and died as quickly as a glance. Of course I cannot prove any of this, but I know it is true as surely as I know my name."

At 11:24 p.m. on the night of Sept. 11, a firefighter and a lieutenant arrive at the door of Fontana's Brooklyn apartment.

"We didn't find any of the guys," Tony begins, wringing his hands, his jaw clenching. "The whole company is missing. The rig was parked on West Street, but we don't know where they went. It's just unbelievable. Nobody knews where anyone is. It took us hours just to figure out who was even there. The place looked like the moon."

Then there's Aidan, her 5-year-old, whose innocent remarks pierce the heart. In a mall food court in late September, long after he's been told the facts, Aidan suddenly asks, "Is Daddy dead?"

"Yes," I say in a raspy whisper. "Daddy's dead. The towers were too big and heavy, and when they find Daddy he'll be dead." The tears fill my eyes, making Aidan's face go out of focus.

"You're a liar," he says without malice, as simply as if he is stating that the sky is blue. "They're going to find him."

"If they find him, sweetie, he won't be alive."

"You're lying."

"I've never lied to you."

"It's not nice to lie."

"I'm not, honey. I wish I were. I do. This is so sad and I wish I could make it not be true, but tha--"

"Look at my new toy!" Aidan says, pulling a plastic Disney character out of his paper bag.

Later, the child begins to wear scary masks everywhere. To his first therapy visit, he wears a firefighter's helmet and a skeleton mask and carries a toy gun. Heartbreaking.

Fontana's efforts on behalf of relatives of the Sept. 11 victims grow into the 9/1 1 Widows and Victims Family Association. As she meets with politicians, attends benefits and shares her opinions of the Twin Towers redevelopment, she notes that the families "have become diplomats of grief, the faces of 9/1 1, and I wonder if any of us will return to the lives we once knew."

Probably not. Because as the Associated Press reported early last week, the relatives of firefighter Stephen Stiller, who worked alongside Dave Fontana, announced their plans to create a group called the " 9/1 1 Families for Katrina Relief Fund."

William Doyle, whose son, Joseph Doyle, died in the North Tower on Sept. 11, told the AP, "I think it's really heartbreaking. Unfortunately, these people aren't getting the help that the 9/1 1 families got."

A Widow's Walk

A Memoir of 9/1 1

By Marian Fontana

Simon & Schuster

422 pages, $24


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