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Remembrance ceremony sparks memories of Sept. 11 widower’s lost wife

Mark Morabito had thought for a long time about what he wanted to say. He was a reader Sunday at the ceremony of remembrance at the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum. Thousands upon thousands were there to hear him as he stepped to a dais to read 21 names from the list of 2,996 men, women and children who died 15 years ago today, in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The 21st name was his wife, Laura Lee DeFazio Morabito.

In the end, he found inspiration in John Lennon – and the spirit of the moment.

The entire weekend, for Morabito, was overwhelming. Laura Lee was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11. Hijackers flew that jetliner into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. 15 years ago today. The ceremony began when a bell tolled Sunday, almost at the matching instant. Saturday, in the museum beneath the outdoor memorial, Morabito stood on the spot where Flight 11 – about 1,200 feet above him, in the air – had exploded into the north tower on that morning.

[Also from Sean Kirst: Mark Morabito on the wife he lost on Sept. 11, 2001 - and an impending visit to the National Sept. 11 Memorial]

He went back because he was chosen, by lottery, to be one of 140 readers who recited the names of the lost. It was the first time he'd returned to that place since November 2001, when all that was there was a gaping hole. In a way, it took him 15 years to prepare for what he knew he would feel.

For Morabito, the most staggering moment of communion was standing at that marker, beneath the place where Flight 11 made contact with the tower at more than 400 miles per hour. It revived everything, in a raw and visceral way. It was more powerful, even, than finding Laura Lee's engraved name on the outdoor memorial, alongside two open pits of flowing water built on the footprint of the twin towers.

What brought him back to Laura Lee was being at the point of contact.

"You've got to be ready for it when you come in here," Morabito said.

Mark Morabito reads the names of the lost, National Sept. 11 Ceremony of Commoration, alongside daughter of Port Authority Officer Nathaniel Webb, who - like Morabito's first wife, Laura Lee - died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (Image from C-Span coverage)

Mark Morabito reads 21 names of the lost on Sunday, National Sept. 11 Ceremony of Commemoration, alongside daughter of Port Authority Police Officer Nathaniel Webb. That officer – like Morabito's first wife, Laura Lee – died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (Screenshot from C-Span coverage)

At the memorial, someone had carefully placed a fresh flower with Laura Lee's name. Someone had gone out the way to make a gesture of remembrance for his first wife.

Morabito, in appreciation, wondered who it was.

But in a sense, he understood: It was everyone.

That's what protected him, what prepared him, for all he saw in the last few days.

"There are so many people here going through the same thing as I am," said Morabito, a native of suburban Syracuse who now lives in Victor, near Rochester. He went to New York on Friday with Kristen Farrington Morabito, his second wife, whose love and support he credits with getting him to a gentler place, beyond his early rage. They stayed in close touch this weekend with their 8-year-old daughter, Julia, who awaited them at home.

From the moment Morabito arrived at the memorial, he felt nothing but a sense of reverence ...

And everyone, from museum staff to the police to other visitors to the site, was unfailingly, consistently kind.

In the end, to Morabito, that is the only choice for moving forward.

"I can't tell you how many people I hugged today," he said.

[From Tim O'Shei of The Buffalo News: Emotional toll of Sept. 11 remains as strong as ever]

So he went to the dais and read a list of 21 names, one of 140 readers doing the same thing on a quiet morning. Once or twice, caught up in emotion, he had to pause. If he had an unforgettable revelation in Manhattan, it was for the sheer scope of loss, the sweeping idea that almost 3,000 families are still going through exactly the same thing, how the ripples of grief and separation will cascade through generations to come.

Each name, to him, carried that kind of meaning.

At the end, the 21st one: Laura Lee.

Morabito remembers the clothes she was wearing when he last saw her on Sept. 11, when he dropped her off so she could catch a ride to Boston's Logan International Airport. He remembers the call that morning when he learned, beyond doubt, it was her plane that hit the tower. He remembers when investigators, years later, recovered her wedding ring and the state police brought it to his home.

Mark Morabito with his first wife, Laura Lee, who died Sept. 11, 2001 (Family photo)

Mark Morabito with his first wife, Laura Lee, who died Sept. 11, 2001. (Family photo)

One side flattened, bent and turned, by an instant of great force.

[Also by Sean Kirst: Hundreds climb stairs at One World Trade to honor hero fire captain, lost on Sept. 11]

He stood Sunday at the dais, alongside the grieving daughter of Port Authority Police Officer Nathaniel Webb, and they took turns reading names. Morabito had a moment, at the end, to speak of Laura Lee. He mentioned her parents and others in their family, and he told Laura Lee how they all missed her and loved her. Then he offered a thought that he came up with seconds earlier, paraphrasing the core theme of John Lennon's song, Imagine:

"I hope one day we can live in peace; maybe one day we can all live as one again."

The crowd was silent. He stepped down.

He listened, for a long time, as so many who share in that wish kept reading names.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. Leave a comment below, or email him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com. These are the names Mark Morabito read Sunday, each linked to an element of biography - each representative, to him, of 2,996 lives:

The 21st was Morabito's wife, Laura Lee.

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