A mother’s never-ending grief
Memorial services will be held across our nation today to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedies. They will be held across our sprawling cities and across our vast countrysides. Poignant messages will be delivered. Bagpipes will play and heads will bow. Hugs will be shared and fellowship spread. Flowers will be placed and tears shed. Prayers will be whispered and the American flag will wave.
Then it will be over. Recognition of our country’s 21st century day of infamy will fade away. But not for those directly impacted — families and friends of the victims.
Yes, today is special as it should be. But for many it will be a repeat of all the days since Sept. 11, 2001. Just like yesterday was and all the days before. Just like tomorrow will be and all the days after. It has been 7,308 days since planes fell like lightning and thunder from bright blue skies over New York City, Washington, D.C., and not too far from here in Shanksville, Pa. Still, the sorrow does not go away. Ever.
“In my heart, I knew she died the minute the plane hit the second building,” Eleanor Salter remembered.
Like so many of us, Eleanor vividly recalled the precise moments that rattled and scarred our nation. But unlike the rest of us, she carries a separate grief day in, day out, and not just on the anniversary of the 9-11 tragedies. Mothers do that when they lose a child.
Working at the East Liverpool Hospital as a cashier on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Eleanor was told by a co-worker that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York City.
“I wasn’t sure what tower Catherine was in,” she recalled of those agonizing moments. Then a second plane hit the other tower. United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower at 9:02 a.m. — shortly after the north had been impacted.
“I knew she was dead,” Eleanor said.
Catherine Patricia Salter, “Cathy” to those who knew her, was born and raised in Wellsville. She had five siblings. A 1982 high school co-valedictorian, she excelled out of the classroom, too. She earned varsity letters in basketball, volleyball and track. She set a Wellsville High School record in the 400 meter dash.
“She was so likable as were her brothers and sisters,” said a fellow classmate. “Popular and fun to be around.”
Cathy went to the University of Cincinnati, earning a bachelor of arts degree in history. She was a big Reds fan. After advancing her education at Cincinnati and the Insurance Institute of America, she began her professional career. She worked as a paralegal and later as a legal assistant in Cincinnati. She joined Aon Risk Services Inc. as a claim administrator. She was promoted to assistant vice president and claim manager.
Driven by a strong work ethic she moved to the company’s New York office in late 1999.
“Her dream was to work there,” her mother said. Right until that fateful day. “She had been talking to her former boss in Cincinnati. She told him they were getting ready to evacuate and were leaving right then.”
The second plane hit the South Tower moments after that call. The bright and bubbly Cathy, who had so much to live for, was gone. Just days earlier, she had turned 37. Her office was up high — at plane level — in the 110-story structure.
The Sept. 11 attacks were a series of coordinated terror attacks by al-Qaida on the United States. Killed were 2,996 — 2,606 in the World Trade Center. A total of 125 died when the Pentagon was struck. Another 265 died on the four planes which became weapons of death. Cathy Salter was the only person from Columbiana County to die that day in New York City.
Her father, Henry, had died in April 2000.
As the only living parent and next of kin, Eleanor traveled to New York City following the tragedies. She remembered walking city block after city block, alone and surrounded by silence. One of the world’s largest and most vibrant cities was muted by sorrow. Besides the grief, she had to deal with lawyers and administrative processing. She remembers that a big warehouse containing tents was set up. There priests, ministers and rabbis greeted and comforted those losing loved ones.
Later, she received a package from New York City. Amazingly it contained Cathy’s clutch purse that had been retrieved from the debris. Originally red, it was blackened. On top of the purse, officials had placed Cathy’s driver’s license.
“Everything in the purse was in perfect shape,” said Eleanor, who donated it to the 9-11 Memorial Museum in New York City.
Five months after the attacks, Eleanor got a call from a coroner’s office. They had recovered some of Cathy’s remains. Bill Roberts, a funeral director from Wellsville, went to New York City. He returned with essentially a “little baggie, a cup of remains.”
Eleanor went to St. Elizabeth Cemetery in Wellsville.
“I buried that on top of her dad,” she said.
Just a couple of weeks later came another call from New York City. They had found a leg, part of an arm and shoulder. Those remains are in an urn.
“They will be buried with me,” Eleanor said.
Astoundingly, she received three more like calls. Imagine being a parent dealing with that.
“I finally told them I can’t handle this,” she recalled.
Additional remains of Cathy are sealed in a crypt at a 9-11 memorial in New York City along with the remains of other victims. As of this week, the remains of some 1,106 remains of victims yet to be identified.
Does she ever ask why?
“I would imagine that the people in something like Pearl Harbor would ask the same questions,” said Eleanor, now 83. “It was an act of war; you have no control over it. Catherine didn’t. I believe that they should not call it a terrorist attack but an act of war.
“She was murdered. Who can accept the death of any child? I think if it was handled differently then we wouldn’t have the problems we have now. I didn’t feel that way when it happened. But I felt more like that after they brought in the Patriot Act. You feel betrayed by the government: they put restrictions on the American people instead of the American people’s enemies.”
She believes our government was aware of an imminent strike.
“They did know something (including President Bush) but didn’t know what or where. I don’t think they had the capabilities to be prepared at that time. Killing bin Laden wasn’t going to bring back my Catherine.”
She feels American citizens were villainized post 9-11. That radicalization became rampant. “Obama wasn’t the savior for us,” she said, likening his policies to a Trojan Horse — unsavories were welcomed into his administration’s inner circle. “Doors were opened that never should have been opened.”
She is bitter about the political climate in the United States. She believes the military presence in Afghanistan served as a deterrent to domestic acts of terror. Now our leaving that terrorist stronghold could produce dire consequences. She calls Biden a “puppet” and Obama his “puppeteer.”
“We are losing control in our country,” she said. “Becoming a Socialist Party with all the entitlements and government control. Cradle to grave.”
Eleanor went to past New York City memorials held each Sept. 11. She didn’t make the trip this year.
“Every time I came back I felt empty,” she revealed. “It isn’t the same as having people who really knew Catherine around. It so nice to hear people here talk about what they missed about her, why they liked her, why they admired her.”
Life doesn’t come with a pause button. Has fleeting time, pages falling from the calendar, helped soften the pain?
“I don’t have to have a memorial to remember my daughter,” Eleanor said after pausing. “Something will always remind me of her. The first five years I was numb. I remember her every day. I am not doing as badly with it as I did before.”
She credits God first and foremost for her resolve. She finds solace from memories. There are so many of them.
“She would come in from school and would be the happiest and bouncy of all the kids,” said Eleanor, who resides in Wellsville. “She was so happy with life; so willing to put forth everything that she had into everything that she was doing.”
One memory in particular always brings a smile to her mom’s face.
“She would do that moon walk (popularized by Michael Jackson),” she said. “I just loved it. Those are the things that I remember the most.”
Faith played and continues to be a driving force in Eleanor’s day-to-day dealing with the grief of losing her daughter in such a tragic way.
Words for those reading this?
“I would tell them to renew their faith in God and country. To be diligent against any domestic threat.”
Following Cathy’s death, among items brought back from her apartment were two handwritten notes. They are precious keepsakes in Eleanor’s scrapbook. One, on company stationery, was a “things to do” list in New York City. Such as taking a carriage ride through Central Park. Taking a swim in the ocean. Seeing a Broadway show. The first entry on the list: “Opera @ Lincoln Center.” It was crossed off. None of the others were.
The other slip of paper, in Cathy’s words, were the creed she lived by:
“The 6 most important words: I admit I made a mistake
The 5 most important words: You did a good job
The 4 most important words: What is your opinion?
The 3 most important words: If you please.
The 2 most important words: Thank you
The 1 most important word: We
The least important word: I”
“That is how she lived until the moment she died,” said her proud but sad mom.