September 11, 2001

Joy W. Fowler


I had written my home school lesson plans days before. Sonlight’s K-2 curriculum had us studying the story of The Tower of Babel that day. I had pulled some manipulatives to create
towers out of blocks to allow my kindergarten son to act out the story of the falling tower. The learning space (kitchen table) was set up waiting for my son to awaken. My phone rang far too early in the morning. It was Chris. His voice wasn’t normal. Something was very wrong. He told me to turn on the TV and get Joan on the phone immediately.

Joan Mangarelli is my first cousin and godmother. She and her husband, Al, helped to raise me. They married four years before I was born, and I was their practice baby. When I was a child, I often went on vacations with them and their kids. Al and I sang at the top of our lungs on car rides and together on Sundays at church. Joan and Al were my Sunday school teachers in my upper elementary years. I’m named after Joan, she’s named after my mom, and I named my daughter after Joan’s mother. I have almost as many pictures from my childhood with Joan and Al and their kids as I do my own parents and siblings. They are my second parents, and I love them dearly. I was crushed when Joan and Al moved from Atlanta back to their home state of
New Jersey in the mid-1980’s. Al had been offered a great job with his old insurance firm; and, in September 2001, he was months away from retirement from his position as an Executive Vice President with Marsh and McLennan, headquartered in New York City’s World Trade Center.

When Chris and I took 53 BHS students to sing at Carnegie Hall in April 2000, the field trip company housed us at the Twin Towers Marriott. We used the WTC subway every day on our trip. Of course, we had connected with Joan and Al each time we took students on that NY field
trip, but being that close to Al in the city, I made sure we visited him at work. While Chris took the students to a rehearsal or something, my four-year-old son, Alex, and I ventured up into the Twin Towers, seemingly climbing forever into the clouds in that elevator. My knees got weak. I
was ready to get back on the ground. I’ll never forget how strange it felt to be up that high; for me, it was a bizarre feeling of being detached from the rest of the world. But it was great to see Al. I was so proud of him; he was a true success story who had made it to a big corner office in the World Trade Center. Little did I know what that would mean just 17 months later.

Chris couldn’t stay on the phone. He had to get back to his chorus class. “Get Joan on the phone and call me back as soon as you know anything.”

The New York phone lines were all jammed, and all of my Georgia family were all calling one another for updates on Al. Somehow, I finally got through to their daughter, my cousin Linda, and eventually spoke with Joan, too. Al was not at his office; Marsh had him fly out of Newark
that morning on a business trip to their DC office. He flew out of the airport in the same hour as the terrorists. He could see the smoke from the Pentagon from his cab. It was never lost on me how Al had so many near brushes with death that fateful day.

Later, their son, my cousin Paul, drove down to DC to pick up his dad and then came back and assisted in the cleanup efforts back up in NYC. Our family grieved and rejoiced at the same time. Al (and my sister, who also worked for him in NYC in the late ‘80’s) lost many friends and coworkers that day. Over 200 Marsh employees died as the towers fell that morning. To this day, he can’t talk about it without crying. He firmly believes that God spared his life for reasons yet to be discovered, and Al’s life has been a testimony to us all to remind us just that.

I never got around to teaching that lesson with the tumbling blocks. I couldn’t even look at them at first. Even the innocence of that lesson was lost.

We all lost something that day. I can’t help but remember; it was far too personal. No, I’ll never forget.