The last conversation Dr. Donna Marino had with her father took place the night of Sept. 10, 2001.
Marino, 25 at the time, and her father, Lester, spoke every Sunday. She was living in Washington D.C., married for about a year and in graduate school.
He had been on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard until Sunday, Sept 9, so they had their weekly conversation Monday night, when she and her husband had just sat down to watch a movie.
“The phone rings, and I let it go to the answering machine. … Thank goodness that we had answering machines then, because I could hear him leaving the message.”
She picked up the phone, and the two had their usual chat. He was a little under the weather, but he was planning to go into work the next day, one of only three days he was working that week, before taking another vacation with his girlfriend to a car show in upstate New York.
The two talked about Marino’s upcoming master’s program graduation and booking a hotel room for the occasion. “I gave him flak, going ‘Oh, I don’t have time for that’,” Marino said, “Which later I regretted.
“I was going to call him the next day and say, ‘I’m sorry, Dad, I can do that for you, it’s no big deal’.”
A family man
The Marino family has deep roots in New York City.
Born and raised in the community of Hempstead on Long Island, Lester Marino followed in his father’s footsteps as a union electrician, working on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge with his father, Peter, and later working on the electrical system during construction of the World Trade Center in the IBEW Local 3 out of Queens. One of Marino’s brothers followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, working as an electrician on the new Yankee Stadium.
“When my grandparents moved to New Jersey and we had to cross the bridge, we’d always say, “Here’s Grandpa’s Bridge,” Marino said, adding that the same distinction was later given to the WTC, as “Dad’s Towers.”
“It’s really awesome, to be honest,” Marino said of her family’s connection to New York. “It is definitely a source of family pride. It’s very cool to feel so tied to the history of such a great city.”
An avid outdoorsman, Marino would take Donna and her siblings on the family boat to go fishing and explore the ocean, and they would go camping in the summer where he and her brothers would hunt.
Lester Marino gave his children a strong work ethic, a love of the outdoors and a sense of loyalty.
“He was very funny; he liked to joke around, play little pranks on us as kids and our friends,” Marino said. “He was very much a family man.”
“The room goes dead silent”
The morning of Sept. 11 was beautiful, with clear skies and perfect temperature.
Marino drove into work that morning with her husband. She to attend graduate school in Arlington, Virginia, down the street from the Pentagon. He to work at the AFL-CIO, down the street from the White House.
She was a teacher’s assistant for a professor, and arrived “super early,” without seeing the news or any TV.
At the end of a break in a three-hour class, students started filing back into the room, chatting about a plane hitting the World Trade Center.
Earlier in the summer, Marino said, several news stories had been reported of small charter planes flown by celebrities having to make emergency landings or crashing. That’s what she thought had happened.
As students continued to talk about the events of the day, Marino said, “Oh, my Dad works there,” in what she described as an “upbeat, happy” tone of voice.
“The room goes dead silent, like you could drop a pin.”
Marino remembered that her professor looked at her, asking if she needed to call her father.
Five minutes into the second half of the class, a program director entered the room and announced that the building had to evacuate.
“It was like this lightbulb of, ‘this is a terrorist attack,’ ” she said.
She went into her professor’s office and called her husband, trying to figure out what was going on.
“I can still remember all of the words and everything, my professor’s hand on my back,” she said. “I could tell you what clothes I was wearing that day.”
Marino said she doesn’t remember what was said next, but she remembered getting out of the building and onto the crowded street.
“There was a guy in the crowd on his cellphone. He kind of turned to the crowd and said, ‘The first tower fell.’ And I still thought that was a joke, that he was being a jerk – this isn’t funny, you don’t mess around like that,” Marino said.
Waiting for her husband to pick her up, Marino stepped into a restaurant, where people were sitting at the bar and watching TV.
“At that point, I saw the first images, I saw the tower fall, and I just remember my jaw dropping, my eyes bulging, my hand covering my mouth,” Marino said.
The restaurant hostess looked at her, asking if she was OK.
“I just said, ‘My father is in that building,’ and I walked out.”
Donna Marino found her husband and made contact with her family. Her brother said “We don’t know anything yet.”
Friends made their way to Marino’s house to support the two. As evening fell, Marino’s eldest brother contacted her after speaking to Lester’s foreman.
The foreman told the family that Lester had been working on a job on a lower floor, but it wasn’t ready. So he made his way to the 105th floor, home to financial services firm of Cantor Fitzgerald.
“It was a place that we knew, and we knew, having seen the images of the buildings, that the plane had come in right underneath there,” Marino said.
The family was still hoping, Marino said, that rescue helicopters had gotten survivors off the roof, that her father, who knew the building like the back of his hand, had found a way out.
“I remember going to bed that night and seeing the rescue groups and thinking, ‘How can we not know anything?’”
“Moving through a fog”
The next day, the bridges were opened for travel. Marino and her husband made their way to New York, where there was “a lot of sitting and waiting.”
By Saturday Sept. 15, Lester’s foreman delivered the same message of no news.
Marino said she remembered driving to New York, driving over “Grandpa’s Bridge” and seeing the smoke where the towers had been.
At the same time, they were first seeing the sight of the fallen towers, Marino said the radio was reporting how many body parts had been discovered.
“It was so much waiting, waiting for information, trying to make sense of it all,” she said. “Could he still be out there? Could he be unconscious somewhere?”
Marino and her husband left New York Sunday, Sept. 15, to head back to D.C. with no more information than what they had started with.
“It was a very surreal feeling,” she recalled, likening it to “moving through a fog.”
“It was everywhere. It was every newspaper, it was every news station, it was every radio station.”
A memorial service was held for Lester Marino at the end of September, earlier than a lot of other families.
“With what little information we had, there was no reason to believe at this point that he was coming home.”
No DNA evidence of Lester Marino was discovered until July 2002, the first time bone shards were found. For “years and years” afterward, family members would receive phone calls and letters, telling them something had been found.
“I’m at the point where I don’t want to know anymore, because what else can you do?” she said. “It just keeps opening it back up.”
“You never stop”
In 2002, Marino and her husband moved to Chicago so she could complete her doctoral program for clinical psychology with an emphasis on children and families.
“It was not necessarily an easy decision, and yet at the same time, it was kind of also healing to be somewhere new and different,” she said. “Just not so surrounded by it, having it as such a heavy presence.
“Coming out here oftentimes, I’m the first person that anybody has ever met that was so directly affected.”
Marino and her husband now live in Aurora with their two daughters, both students in Oswego School District 308. Last year, she was elected to the board of education and to the role of president.
As the years passed, Marino said that she had to grieve not just the loss of her father, but the loss of his life’s work, saying, “You never stop grieving your parents.”
“He’s definitely missed a lot,” she added.
Her eldest brother lost his best friend. Her younger sister lost her father at a time when she was forming a new relationship with him as a young adult.
“She felt really robbed,” Marino said.
She has been back to the 9/11 memorial, a place she calls “beautiful.” She went to the museum once, and likely will never return.
“I’ve tried to make a lot of decisions in my life, kind of based on what he would want for me, with him in mind, still trying to make him proud and do the right thing,” she said.
“You can carry a lot of hate in your heart after something like this. You could choose to hate a religion, or you could choose to hate an ethnic group or a country.
“It’s really important to me to choose not to. This was an act of a group of people, and they don’t represent all people in those groups.
“I feel that’s another way that I honor him. Hate in your heart is poison for yourself and everyone else. I just try to make more good come of it than anything else, and make choices that allow that to happen.”
Source: The Daily Chronicle