15 Years After 9/11, a Brother Confronts Grief’s Long Arc

| November 3, 2017 | 0 Comments

Harley Di Nardo had long suppressed his pain over the loss of his sister—until sorrow proved stronger

By Gregory Zuckerman for The Wall Street Journal
Sept. 9, 2016

The night before everything changed, Harley Di Nardo and his sister, Marisa, treated their mother to a birthday dinner at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the World Trade Center’s 107th floor.

They joked about the waiters, who hovered nearby, and the building’s lousy cellphone reception. Marisa talked about the challenges of working as a commodities broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, a few floors below. She nearly took another job in New Jersey, she confided, but her boss persuaded her to stay.

A violent rainstorm passed through New York City that night, Sept. 10, 2001, and after it cleared, Harley and his sister pressed up to a restaurant window to look at the lights of Manhattan stretched out below.

Marisa splurged on two $200 bottles of wine and picked up the tab for her brother, a musician, and her mother, a real-estate agent. “It was a Last Supper-type of feeling,” Harley recalled.

After midnight, as they waited for a car service to take Marisa home, Harley said his 37-year-old sister, usually gregarious, looked tired and sad. She had split from her husband and was traveling a lot for work.

“Why don’t you take the day off tomorrow,” Marisa’s mother asked.

“I can’t,” Marisa said. “I have an 8:30 a.m. meeting.”

Harley left Marisa on the couch of a nearby hotel to wait for her ride. He happened to look back at her sitting alone, resting her chin on her hands, and then headed home worried about his sister and her life.

The next morning, around 9 a.m., Harley turned on his TV to images of the World Trade Center with a smoky, gaping hole and the sounds of sirens and screams. He phoned Marisa but got no answer.

Harley and his girlfriend rode the subway as far as 14th Street before the train halted. They ran down Washington Street, and Harley stopped dazed pedestrians streaming the other way.

“What building are you coming from?” he asked. Some said they had come from the World Trade Center’s North Tower, where Marisa worked on the 104th floor, giving Harley a moment’s hope.

Minutes later, they saw the South Tower collapse. As the street filled with debris, the couple could go no farther and began to cry.

Six months later, police knocked on the door of the Di Nardo family home in Westchester, New York. They carried Marisa’s charred, black purse. Inside was a receipt from the Sept. 10 dinner. She was one of 2,606 people killed by the terrorists who struck the Twin Towers. The purse was all the tangible evidence Marisa’s family had of her passing.

For close to 15 years, Harley buried his grief and avoided thinking about his sister in the doomed tower. It was too painful, he said.

Since opening in 2011, the 9/11 Memorial in downtown Manhattan has drawn more than 28 million visitors; nearly seven million have visited the city’s 9/11 Memorial Museum since it opened in 2014.

But many people who lost friends and family members have had difficulty confronting the tragic toll of 9/11. For years, some shunned the details of what happened that day. Whether because of guilt or depth of loss, they tried to turn away, only to find their grief surface unexpectedly as time passed.

For Harley Di Nardo, a wave of sorrow found him early this year. Rather than run away, he dove into action.

Need to know

Harley and Marisa Di Nardo had been close siblings. She encouraged her brother’s music and filmmaking career, and was a loyal older sister who attended his live shows and urged the rest of the family to support him.

Two weeks before the 9/11 attack, Marisa had invited her brother to her apartment for dinner and shared a disturbing dream. “I’m going to die soon,” she said, crying. Harley had tried to reassure her.

For years afterward, he was haunted by her premonition and the mass assault that took her life and so many others.

“All I could picture was her in there with the walls collapsing, trapped…it was too gruesome to think about,” Harley said. “If someone started talking about it I walked away.”

Marisa’s 2002 memorial service was the last time Harley reflected on his sister’s death, he said, until he, his wife and two young children moved to California last year.

His son and daughter asked about their aunt, and Harley found himself wishing he knew more about her last day. Maybe it was the move to the West Coast, the sunny weather or time passing, but something inside him changed.

For too long, Harley said, “I had thought, ‘Life has to go on, she’s not here, it doesn’t matter.’ Then all of a sudden it did.”

In February, he said, he decided “I needed to know what happened up there. I just really, really miss this person and wanted to know.”

Harley wasn’t sure where to begin. He first scrutinized photos of people who jumped from his sister’s building and listened to tapes of 911 emergency calls from people in the World Trade Center that day, all with no luck.

He remembered that at his sister’s memorial service, one of Marisa’s former clients said he was in touch with her just after the first plane hit. He asked around but no one in the family recalled a name.

“My first goal was to find who this guy was.” Harley said.

He retrieved a Twitter message he received late last year from Marisa’s goddaughter, Maggie Johnston. Ms. Johnston’s father had worked with Marisa at a commodity brokerage firm in Houston years ago and they became close friends.

Ms. Johnston’s tweet included a photo of Marisa holding her as a baby. “I intend on giving my firstborn daughter her name,” Ms. Johnston wrote.

Harley reached Ms. Johnston and asked her to put him in touch with her parents, hoping they might help identify the mystery man.

Steven Johnston, Marisa’s former colleague, was overcome with emotion when he got the call and couldn’t speak on the phone. His wife got on the line and, with her husband’s help, she begin reciting the names of Marisa’s clients they could recall.

“….Herb Petry…”

“I remember that name,” Harley called out. He said Mr. Petry had joined him and his sister at a New York City cafe the week before Sept. 11, one of many people Marisa had befriended through her work.

‘Something hit our building’

Harley was encouraged. He sent a Facebook friend request to Mr. Petry and a message: “I’d love to talk about what went down that day.”

When they spoke, Mr. Petry said he had been in Goldman Sachs’s trading room in lower Manhattan when the first hijacked plane slammed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. After hearing the 8:46 a.m. explosion, he and his colleagues turned on a TV and saw smoke billowing from the building. He said his first reaction was to reach Marisa.

“Are you OK? What’s going on?” he asked over a squawk box that ran between Goldman and Cantor to facilitate trading.

Marisa couldn’t communicate over their telephone line, Mr. Petry said, so she replied on AOL Instant Messenger.

“Something just hit our building,” she said. “It’s getting smoky. I am having trouble breathing.”

“Can you get to the kitchen to get something over your face?” Mr. Petry asked.

“I’m going to try to call my mom and run,” Marisa wrote.

Harley discovered that parts of their exchange were included in a Sept. 13, 2001, article in The Wall Street Journal.

After the second plane hit the South Tower, Mr. Petry and his colleagues fled Goldman’s office.

“That was my first piece of information,” Harley said. The conversation with Mr. Petry yielded new details, and the progress lifted his spirits.

Piecing together the end of his sister’s life was more comforting than Harley had expected, he said. Talking with Marisa’s friends helped him feel closer to his sister.

Mr. Petry’s recollections raised new questions. Marisa’s mother never received a call from her daughter, for one thing.

Harley learned his sister may have placed a call to her husband, Jeffrey Schorpp, possibly to discuss an escape route. Mr. Schorpp had worked as an electrician and knew about New York office buildings, Harley said.

The Di Nardo family had become estranged from Mr. Schorpp after Sept. 11, and Harley didn’t want to call him. In an interview, Mr. Schorpp said only that Marisa had called him after the first plane hit.

Harley said his sister always sat by fire exits at movie theaters when they were growing up: “It was like a phobia for her, she always thought about exits. It came into my head, if there was a way to get out, she’d look for it.”

He spoke with people who speculated she may have headed to the building’s roof. Weeks before the terror attack, his sister had talked about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing with Herb Petry’s wife, Brenda, who recalled Marisa saying, “If anything ever happened again, I’d go to the roof.”

Seeking confirmation, Harley combed through news accounts for any mention of his sister’s colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald, especially her best friend at the firm, Stacey Peak. One article quoted Ms. Peak’s mother, Bobbie, saying her daughter called her as smoke filled the office.

“Mom, there’s a fire in my building,” Ms. Peak said, her mother told an Indianapolis radio station in 2006. “We’re trying to get out and maybe go to the roof.”

There were other clues. T he Journal reported in 2001that the home answering machine of a Cantor Fitzgerald executive had recorded a snippet of workers screaming: “Try the roof! Try the roof!”

Harley was convinced his sister would have tried to lead her colleagues to safety.

More than 200 people in the building climbed toward the tower’s roof, according to news accounts. Two New York police-rescue helicopters hovered nearby with a three-man crew trained for rooftop rescues. Two sets of metal doors leading to the roof exit were locked for security, blocking escape.

Reports that some Cantor Fitzgerald employees held hands before they likely suffered smoke inhalation gave Harley hope his sister spent her last moments embracing colleagues.

“My theory is they spent the last moment holding hands and praying,” he said. “I’d like to believe they passed out before the floor gave way.”

Harley now lives in Los Angeles, works as a stylist at a hair salon in Malibu, writes music and makes films. He keeps in touch with Ms. Johnston and Mr. Petry. He tells his son and daughter stories about their Aunt Marisa and how she would have spoiled them.

To honor his sister, Harley reissued a song this summer that had been her favorite and produced a music video starring his children.

“Marisa was a huge kids’ person, but she never had a chance to have children,” he said. “My kids talk about her all the time.”

Harley learned a little more about what happened to Marisa on Sept. 11, and the work has helped him air grief long kept sealed. Yet he discovered only a balm, not a cure. For now, he said, that is enough.

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