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He lost his wife to Sept. 11: Sunday, where it happened, he will read her name

In a way, Mark Morabito figures he was lucky. Fifteen years ago, he got up early on a perfect September morning in Massachusetts. He drove his wife, Laura Lee DeFazio Morabito, to a nearby car service that provided rides to the airport. They had time for a quick kiss, a farewell.

The last thing Morabito said to Laura Lee, as she walked away:

I love you.

That was a gift, Morabito says now. Laura Lee caught a ride to Boston Logan International Airport. She worked for Qantas Airlines as a national sales manager. She was leaving on a business trip to Los Angeles. She got onboard American Airlines Flight 11, and sat in the first-class section, near the very front.

For Morabito, that is the hardest part of it. He knows Laura Lee must have been only a few feet away as hijackers stormed the cockpit, as they attacked two flight attendants and a passenger, as they took over the aircraft. She was one of 81 passengers on Flight 11, a jetliner that investigators believe was traveling at more than 400 miles an hour when it was flown like a missile into the north tower of the World Trade Center ….

Changing the meaning, forever, of Sept. 11.

“Yes, I was very fortunate,” Morabito said, a statement he offers with empathy for thousands who mourn loved ones from that morning. Almost 3,000 people died in the attacks, either in Manhattan, or at the Pentagon in Washington D.C., or when a hijacked plane fell to the earth, in Shanksville, Pa.

Morabito knows many of those women, men and children rolled from bed in the early morning and did not want to bother others in their families. He knows they left without even casual conversation, assuming they’d speak to the people they loved, soon enough.

With Laura Lee, at least he had a chance to say goodbye.

Mark Morabito with his first wife, Laura Lee DeFazio Morabito, who died on Sept. 11, 2001. (Image courtesy Mark Morabito)

Mark Morabito with his first wife, Laura Lee DeFazio Morabito, who died on Sept. 11, 2001. (Image courtesy Mark Morabito)

Sunday morning, he will join thousands of others who carry the same searing grief. He is returning to the site of the attacks for the first time since November 2001, long before there was a memorial and a gleaming tower, when all Morabito saw was a raw and gaping hole. He was selected this year from a lottery to be one of the family members who will read the names of the lost during Sunday's ceremony of commemoration.

It will be the 15th anniversary of the attacks. As thousands listen at the National Sept. 11 Memorial, Morabito - one of 140 readers - will stand at a dais and read a list of 21 names, part of a ceremony in which every person who died on that morning will be remembered. The organizers sent him an audio file, so he could be sure of pronunciations. Each one has a tale of almost unbearable resonance. "You do the research, and you read the stories, and it blows you away," Morabito said.

Among them:

He will read the name of  Andre Fletcher, a New York City firefighter who died at the World Trade Center while his twin brother and fellow firefighter, Zackary Fletcher, survived.

He will read the name of Noel John Foster, a vice president with Aon Corp., who died while helping a man with a broken leg descend the stairs in the south tower.

He will read the name of Clyde Frazier Jr.,  who worked at the trade center as a state tax investigator – and spent years  building a basketball camp for young women in the city.

The 21st name: Laura Lee.

Morabito wonders how he'll do once he reaches that moment. He said he still thinks every day about Sept. 11. He remembers the brief period, after the attacks, when Americans were extraordinarily kind to one another – and then, abruptly, how it vanished. He worries about the distractions of a digital age, and the way they can diminish communal memory. He thinks with gratitude of all the young men and women who have served and sacrificed in the military since 2001, and Morabito knows many of them were motivated to enlist by what happened to his wife and 2,995 others.

He has a blunt reason for why he never went back to the World Trade Center: “I was afraid.”

Kristen Farrington Morabito, who married Mark Morabito in 2010, with their daughter, Julia. (Image courtesy Mark Morabito)

Kristen Farrington Morabito, who married Mark Morabito in 2010, with their daughter, Julia. (Image courtesy Mark Morabito)

In the years after the towers fell, Morabito often found himself in a dark rage. He was consumed by the horror Laura Lee must have witnessed, by the sheer terror of those last moments on the plane.

What pulled him out of it was a blind date in 2003 with Kristen Farrington, who gave him a new foundation – and later became his second wife.

“Without her – and I mean this – I’d be gone,” said Morabito, who's spent most of his life Upstate. “I’d have had nothing to live for.”

They had a daughter, Julia, in 2008.  “She was my light switch,” Morabito said of the little girl. The family goes to Disney World every year. At home, Morabito and Julia love to cook and sing together. His wife and daughter, he said, give him a reason to rejoice.

That is different, he said, from ever finding complete peace.

“Think of it,” Morabito said. “These were all people just looking forward to a cup of coffee. You get up and you go to work, and you’re just settling in, and you look up and you’ve got a 767 coming straight at your window?”

A related column from Sean Kirst: Hundreds climb One World Trade to remember hero firefighter, lost on Sept. 11

Sunday is not an anniversary, Morabito said: It is a remembrance of mass murder. Like other Sept. 11 family members, he's had to deal with the merciless reality of 21st century technology. Morabito can be anywhere, at the mall or in a restaurant or in his living room, and footage of Flight 11 exploding into the North Tower will suddenly appear on a television. "You watch your wife getting killed over and over and over again," he said.

Morabito pulled out his mobile phone, tapped it a few times. On the screen, you saw that perfect September morning: blue skies, the twin towers in Manhattan ....

Then a plane.

“People ask me if I’ve moved on," he said. "I say: You never move on. You move forward.”

At Johnny Angel's, a Skaneateles hamburger restaurant, Mark Morabito calls up video of American Airlines Flight 11 exploding at the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. His wife, Laura Lee, was on the plane. Fifteen years later, Morabito said, he still sees that footage everywhere. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

At Johnny Angel's, a Skaneateles hamburger restaurant, Mark Morabito calls up video of American Airlines Flight 11 exploding at the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. His wife, Laura Lee, was on the plane. Fifteen years later, Morabito said, he still sees that footage everywhere. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

Morabito, a retired currency trader, lives in Victor, outside of Rochester. He was raised in Camillus, near Syracuse, and met Laura Lee when they were living in Arizona. They had moved to Framingham, near Boston, when Laura Lee boarded Flight 11.

In the past decade, Morabito said, he’s had six heart attacks and open heart surgery. He is being treated for diabetes. He believes those struggles are intensified by grief from the attacks.

But he emphasized again: In many ways, he’s lucky.

Ten years ago, he learned that forensic specialists had identified parts of Laura Lee's remains. Impossibly, investigators found her wedding ring. It arrived at the front door of Morabito’s home – at that time in Cayuga County – transported across New York by state police. Morabito remembers holding the ring in his hand. One side of it was flattened, pushed in, evidence of an instant of  force and heat beyond belief.

To Morabito, in a hard way, all of that was a blessing. He was able to bury Laura Lee in a cemetery, beneath green trees and green grass. He has a place where he can go to honor her memory. As for the wedding ring, he wore it for a time on a thin chain around his neck, and then he gave it to Laura Lee’s mother.

He has no idea how he will do on Sunday morning, whether he can use sheer will to keep his voice from trembling. He intends to wear a golf shirt and khakis to the ceremony, because he and Laura Lee golfed whenever and wherever they could. He said he expects it to be a warm and sunny morning, much like another Sept. 11 in 2001.

Kristen will be there, supporting him, as she has always done.

Morabito worries a little about what all of it might stir inside him. “These people weren’t killed,” he said again. “They were murdered. They all should still be there.” He calms himself by remembering that he will be reading the names as tribute for those “in the same boat as me,” and that each name – to someone’s family – means the same as Laura Lee's.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified the family of Clyde Frazier Jr., whose name Mark Morabito will read Sunday morning.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. You can leave a comment below, using your Facebook sign-in, or email him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com. You can read more of Kirst's work in this archive.

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