New Jerseyans Share Personal 9/11 Stories on 20th Anniversary

NJ residents, including a Westfield couple who met in a support group for people who lost loved ones in the attack, reflect on 9/11's impact on their lives.

Joe and Tracy O’Keefe at the Tower of Remembrance, a 9/11 memorial at the Shrine of St. Joseph in Stirling.

Joe and Tracy O’Keefe find comfort at the Tower of Remembrance, a 9/11 memorial at the Shrine of St. Joseph in Stirling. The couple met at a support group for people who lost loved ones in the attack on the World Trade Center. Photo by Erik Rank

Photojournalist Thomas E. Franklin was about to leave for work at the Record early on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. “I remember thinking, It’s just beautiful today,” he says. Franklin wasn’t at his desk long before an editor came running to tell the team a plane had hit the World Trade Center. From the newspaper’s office in Hackensack, they could see the plume of smoke. “I grabbed my gear and headed to Manhattan,” says Franklin, who managed to hitch a ride on a tugboat across the Hudson River. Later that afternoon, he took what would become an iconic photo of three firemen raising the American flag amid the dust and chaos. “I never lose sight of the fact that thousands of people lost their lives,” he says.

New Vernon resident Matthew Bocchi was in fourth grade that September, 20 years ago. His father, John Bocchi, worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the north tower. “He really enjoyed life,” says Bocchi. “He lived it to the fullest, and that’s something I’m proud of.”

On 9/11, Bocchi remembers seeing a video on TV of someone jumping. “That stuck with me,” he says. Bocchi was determined to find out whether his father also jumped. For years, he pored over news coverage, blueprints and any other reports he could find. “That obsession brought me to my knees,” he says, adding that a family member used his grief to abuse him. “I started self-medicating right when that happened,” says Bocchi. In college, it became an addiction.

Bocchi finally realized that his father wouldn’t have wanted him to be consumed with his death, but rather embrace life like he did. “I try to live my life the way my dad would want me to live it,” says Bocchi. He’s been sober for six years, and last year, he published his first book, Sway, a memoir of how 9/11 shaped his life. “It’s something that’s a part of me, but it doesn’t have to define me anymore,” he says.

Cathy Miller of Morristown holds flowers at a local 9/11 memorial.

Cathy Miller. Photo by Erik Rank

Morristown resident Cathy Miller was a young professional working in the South Street Seaport area. Her father, Bob Kennedy, was at Marsh & McLennan, on the 100th floor of the north tower. “He loved his office and loved his floor,” she says. He particularly enjoyed the supportive role he had helping his colleagues “get stuff done.”

Miller’s father was one of two Toms River residents who perished on 9/11. (In all, 2,606 people died in the World Trade Center attack.) With the loss, Miller and her husband put a pause on having children. “We just froze,” she says. “It just took such a long time to figure out how to go on.” After 10 years of marriage, the couple had their first child, a boy, and two years later, a second. Their kids are now in seventh and ninth grades, and their parents make sure they have a sense of who their grandfather was.

“He’s always in the conversation,” says Miller. The boys tell silly jokes, just like her father did, and wear his ties when there’s a special occasion. “That helps keep his memory alive,” she says.

Miller is thankful other people are still interested in hearing about the individuals who were lost. “They might have not been known to everyone, but they were known to the people who loved them, and they mattered,” says Miller. While her boys learned a lot about their grandfather, Miller says they haven’t learned much about 9/11 in school. “They don’t really teach it.”

Westfield parents Joe and Tracy O’Keefe, who married after meeting in a Hoboken support group for people who lost loved ones in the attack, agree. “Education is inconsistent,” says Tracy. She thinks that’s because there are no national guidelines.

Tracy and Joe remain close to the families of their late spouses, Alex Steinman and Lesley Thomas. Thomas was originally from Australia, and sometimes the entire family goes to visit her clan. Joe says war memorials in Australia remind him of 9/11. “They all say, ‘Lest we forget.’ It’s poetic. I like that. It helps me.”

For years after 9/11, Franklin says the Record was flooded with requests to use the flag-raising photo. Requests are fewer now, but people in the area never forget that tragic day. “We mark time by 9/11,” says Franklin. “That is the event of our lifetime.”

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