A Family Remembers

4:19 pm 9-11 Anthology Chapters

Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

December 2, 2001 Sunday MAIN EDITION

A LITTLE COMFORT FOR A FAMILY WITHOUT A FATHER

BYLINE: By DAWN SHURMAITIS Special to the Times Leader

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1A

LENGTH: 1269 words

Editor’s note: This year, one New York family victimized by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is included in the Book of Dreams program.

QUEENS, N.Y. – For much of his 46 years, David Vargas lived a life brimming with hope and promise.

He left his native Bolivia in 1982, determined to carve himself a secure niche in New York City. There, he found a reliable job with a solid company – Pitney Bowes – and the love of a good woman from Ecuador.

Rosa Caicedo came to America the same year as David, and they happily discovered they shared dreams. Solid marriage. Loving family. Hard work.

They built their life together in Queens, N.Y., in a simple apartment in the tallest building on their street, in the working-class neighborhood of Astoria.

They raised two children, Leslie and Kevin, and taught them the important things in life – good grades, good manners and family.

Above all else, David was known as a family man, the kind whose help extended to numerous nieces and nephews. “He was playful, and always in a happy mood,” says his daughter, an animated 14-year-old whose words tumble out in excited bursts. “He always helped us with our homework,” says his son.

Kevin last saw his father the morning of Sept. 11 at a train station. Kevin went on to school – and his father headed off to work, on the 101st floor of World Trade Center Two, where he worked the past six years as a customer service manager. Then, for David – as for about 4,000 other people – another day on the job turned into a last day on Earth.

Until Sept. 11, about the toughest things Leslie and Kevin had to tackle were algebra and catching a pop fly to right field.

Today, they struggle with life without a father while helping their mother grieve. Together, they strive to comprehend the horror that terrorists from a far-off land visited upon their family.

“I help her with the bills,” Leslie says.

“I tell my mom not to cry,” says Kevin, who turned 12 four days after the attacks. Now, says the quiet boy with the shy smile, he is the man of the family.

The Vargas family has been selected for the Times Leader/Luzerne Foundation Book of Dreams, the annual holiday appeal to the community to help people with special needs. Donors may contribute any amount toward this year’s estimated goal of $13,000 by using the accompanying coupon. If you would like your donation to go toward a specific cause, please note that on the coupon.

When they talk about their father now, Leslie and Kevin remember things such as his favorite sweat pants – the kind that made that silly swishy-swishy sound when he walked.

They remember the pride he took in every detail of his work, hard work that paid off this year when his company named him one of its top 50 “All-Stars” and rewarded him with a family trip to Disney World.

They also remember the little train set he put under the Christmas tree each year and the cookies the family would make together, using a recipe David remembered from childhood. The train will be there this Christmas and maybe the cookies.

But, nothing else will be the same. Nothing else will ever be the same for Rosa, Leslie and Kevin.

Leslie was at school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when she learned an airplane had been flown purposely into the building where her father worked. Her fears were twofold: Her mother worked two blocks away in the Bank of New York lock-box department.

When the first plane hit the north tower, Rosa said, she saw the fire and smoke raging from the building and called her husband. “I said ‘David, there’s smoke coming out. Get out now.’ And he said ‘OK, OK.’ “ When she called again a few minutes later, the phone lines were dead.

It took hours for Leslie and Rosa to reach home – both walked for miles. Once in Queens, reunited with Kevin, they rejoiced. Someone from Pitney Bowes told them everyone had gotten out of the burning building safely. And so they waited for David to come home, the way he did every evening, without fail.

Hours passed, and David did not come home or call.

Finally, the family reached the company again. This time, they were told no one knew for certain who was safe. A manager last saw David readying to evacuate, his bag slung over his shoulder.

Rosa’s three brothers immediately set out for the hospitals, bearing photos of David. Then, they toured the morgues. At home, the children tried to reach anyone who worked with their dad, anyone who might know what happened.

Eventually, to help with DNA identification, the family turned over David’s razor and deodorant. They also remembered to tell officials about a small tattoo bearing the date 1956 on his hand – a mark made during his service in the Bolivian military.

Days passed, then weeks. Throughout, Leslie had dreams in which her father would appear, assuring her everything was fine. “We have hope, every day we have hope,” Rosa says. “I was scared to think about not finding David. I resisted. We had the faith.”

As Catholics, the family relied on that faith, praying first that David would be found – and then that he had passed on to a better place.

Now, there is not even a grave over which to mourn.

All the family has is an American flag and a small wooden urn containing ashes from Ground Zero that the city of New York distributed to all family members during a memorial service. The children say those are little consolation.

“I don’t say my father is dead I say he’s missing,” Leslie says. “They never gave me his body.”

On Nov. 17, the family finally gave in to the advice of grief counselors and held a memorial service for David at Most Precious Blood Church in Queens.

The church was filled with friends and family who came to pay tribute, cry and laugh.

In the program, the family included more than two dozen photos detailing a life well lived: the entire family on trips to the beach, Washington, D.C., and Ecuador. David posing with his daughter at her eighth-grade graduation, standing in front of the Empire State Building and holding his infant son. David and Rosa from the early days, 17 years ago.

On the night of Sept. 10, David talked with his wife about leaving New York City. His company wanted to relocate him to Switzerland.

Rosa has not been back to work since the attack. Her company, housed in a building now deemed unsafe, plans to relocate upstate. Rosa, who says she can’t bear to leave her home and family right now, isn’t going.

David’s paychecks, which continued after Sept. 11, stopped after two months. Rosa is getting disability and money from the Red Cross and the Crime Victims Board. Her main concern is being able to pay her bills and the children’s school tuition.

She is determined that her children go to college.

Now, Kevin dreams of becoming an FBI agent – just like the ones tracking down the terrorists. Or maybe he’ll become an actor, like his favorites, Mel Gibson and Chris Tucker. Leslie might become a TV sportscaster or maybe study psychology like the grief counselors who helped her family.

“Everything we worked for, we did for the kids,” Rosa says. “The main thing for us, was for family, for the kids.”

Dawn Shurmaitis is a former Times Leader staff writer who is now a free-lance writer living in Jersey City, N.J.

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