10 years later: 9/11 tragedies directly touched many lives in Southwest Florida

Memorial services in Collier County on Sunday are the following:

9 a.m. at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 625 111th Ave. N., North Naples

10 a.m. at First Congregational Church of Naples, 6330 Immokalee Road

11 a.m. a “Blue Mass” at St. William Catholic Church, 601 Seagate Drive, North Naples

6 p.m. at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church, 5130 Rattlesnake Hammock Road, East Naples

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 feels just like yesterday to Maureen Ricker.

“I still have all the same feelings that I did back then, the day it happened,” said Ricker, a seasonal Naples resident of Rhode Island. “It saddens me, never mind how the family feels.”

Ricker’s cousin, Gerry Nevins, a New York City firefighter, died trying to rescue others after the 9/11 attacks.

Nevins, 46, of Rescue 1 was an 18-year veteran of the department and named firefighter of the year in 2001. He was survived by his wife and two sons, 7 and 5, at the time of 9/11.

A year after, Ricker and her husband, Richard Ricker, visited Nevins’ fire station, where several firefighters died rescuing others after the 9/11 attacks.

This year on 9/11, Ricker, 64, plans to go to church, like every Sunday, and pray for all the families affected by the attacks, she said.

The anniversary of 9/11 needs to be a day of national pride, said Ricker, whose family has generations of firefighters dedicated to the New York City area and whose father was a Navy veteran.

_ Tracy X. Miguel

* * * * *

Ten years after they confronted acres of rubble and devastation at ground zero, firefighters remain tight-lipped about what they saw on 9/11.

“Firefighters don’t talk about those kinds of things to anybody,” said Bill Whelan, a retired New York City firefighter. “We take care of it ourselves, which is not a good thing.”

Whelan, a Naples resident, still finds it difficult himself. The 67-year-old was one of the more than 3,000 first responders on the scene that day. A firefighter from his company was among the first to die.

“One of the jumpers landed on him,” said Whelan, who later learned nearly 200 of his friends and acquaintances were among the 411 first responders who died.

As for the survivors, Whelan tried to help them cope.

“Some lost it. Some guys had to leave the job,” he said. “As the year went on, the adrenaline sort of faded and they needed counseling bad. Some needed it, but didn’t take it.”

Now, as president of the Gulf Coast Retired Firefighters Association, Whelan wants to start talking.

“People have forgotten, especially the younger people,” said Whelan, who visited North Naples Middle School on Sept. 8. “It didn’t mean that much to them then. It probably looked like something from a movie.”

Whelan wants to visit more area classrooms to educate youth about what occurred.

“Our country was devastated. Nobody believes it could happen in this country,” he said “We don’t ever want people to wonder what 9/11 was, when it was, why it happened.”

__ Kristine Gill

* * * * *

Thomas Heidenberger will do exactly what he has done every Sept. 11 for the past 10 years.

The part-time Marco Island resident, whose former wife, an American Airlines flight attendant, died after the plane crashed into the Pentagon, plans to go to church and visit her grave.

This year, Heidenberger will visit the Pentagon and continue to keep a low profile.

“Even though Michele is physically not here, emotionally and spiritually she is with us,” Heidenberger, 65, said in a phone interview from Chevy Chase, Md.

Heidenberger said he’s going to spend the day with his family, including his daughter, Alison, and his grandson, Chase, celebrating both of their birthdays, which are on Sept. 10 -- a day Alison once didn’t want to celebrate.

Now, the day before the attacks is a day of reaffirming what Michele would have wanted, he said.

Michele Heidenberger

Michele Heidenberger

“As Michele always said ‘You have to get over it and you have to move on,’” Heidenberger said.

Today, the family appreciates life as it is, including the birth of Chase, who arrived last year.

“To survive is for the living and to live is to survive,” he said.

Michele Heidenberger was an American Airlines flight attendant who normally flew day trips from Dulles Airport to Miami.

On Sept. 11, 2001, she switched flight plans to accommodate an upcoming trip to Europe and was a flight attendant on the Dulles to Los Angeles American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked. Her plane crashed into the Pentagon, killing everyone on board.

Ten years after the attacks, Heidenberger said he is fortunate. He was married to Michele for almost 30 years and had two children, unlike the younger victims who never had a chance to experience a full life, he said.

“I look at it as the glass being half full rather than half empty,” said Heidenberger, who remarried last year.

_ Tracy X. Miguel

* * * * *

A color photograph of the Twin Towers and another of a New York City fire boat hang in North Naples fire spokesman Jerry Sanford’s office.

Every day, the images remind Sanford, a retired New York City firefighter of 30 years, about his fellow friends and co-workers who died on 9/11. He knew about half of the 343 firefighters, including Mychal Judge, the New York Fire Department chaplain, who died.

“It’s hard to ever forget these terrible attacks on Sept. 11 -- all those 3,000 people murdered that day in Shanksville, Pa., Washington, and New York,” Sanford said. “Years will go by, but it’s still very hard to forget all the people that were killed that day.”

Jerry Sanford, a retired New York City firefighter and a current public information officer for the North Naples Fire District, worked in a press office in New York City after 9/11 arranging interviews for national television shows and other media. David Albers/Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS

Jerry Sanford, a retired New York City firefighter and a current public information officer for the North Naples Fire District, worked in a press office in New York City after 9/11 arranging interviews for national television shows and other media. David Albers/Staff

A day before the attacks, Sanford had been at a rededication ceremony of a fire house in South Bronx. The next day, he flew back to Naples and was in an airport in Pittsburgh when the planes struck the World Trade Center.

On the Saturday following 9/11, Sanford went to New York and stayed there, volunteering in the press office for five weeks.

The 10-year anniversary is going to be a sad day for Sanford.

“My heart will be very heavy that day,” the native Staten Islander said.

Sanford questioned the loss of American patriotism that grew strong 10 years ago after 9/11.

He urged the community to renew its patriotism. Sanford suggested hanging an American flag every day, showing how proud people are to be Americans.

Remembrance masses are planned at four Naples-area churches for the 10th anniversary. Sanford plans to attend at least three of them.

Memorial services in Collier County on Sunday are the following: 9 a.m. at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 625 111th Ave. N., North Naples; 10 a.m. at First Congregational Church of Naples, 6330 Immokalee Road; 11 a.m. a “Blue Mass” at St. William Catholic Church, 601 Seagate Drive, North Naples; and 6 p.m. at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church, 5130 Rattlesnake Hammock Road, East Naples.

_ Tracy X. Miguel

* * * * *

Sal Pernice is used to death.

For 22 years, he transported bodies for the Bergen County Medical Examiner’s Office in New Jersey while running a family funeral home.

Car accidents, suicides, fires, even plane crashes, were part of an average day’s work for the Marco Island resident.

But as a member of a 9/11 search-and-rescue team, Pernice encountered devastation of a new magnitude.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Marco Island resident Sal Pernice, 56, had worked in a family funeral home business for 22 years and was also working for the Bergen County Medical Examiner's Office in New Jersey. Pernice and four others from Bergen County were escorted to Ground Zero on the evening after the attacks to retrieve and identify bodies. 'It made you angry that day. When I first set foot on Ground Zero that day and was looking around, I found it really hard to believe that this was really happening. How could this be real?,' said Pernice. David Albers/Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS

On Sept. 11, 2001, Marco Island resident Sal Pernice, 56, had worked in a family funeral home business for 22 years and was also working for the Bergen County Medical Examiner's Office in New Jersey. Pernice and four others from Bergen County were escorted to Ground Zero on the evening after the attacks to retrieve and identify bodies. "It made you angry that day. When I first set foot on Ground Zero that day and was looking around, I found it really hard to believe that this was really happening. How could this be real?," said Pernice. David Albers/Staff

“There was debris, papers, office furniture — everywhere you looked,” he said. “I found a desk phone with the cord stretched like Turkish Taffy from the heat.”

Pernice, 56, and a team of four others from Bergen County identified seven bodies that day but encountered countless others. It was the manner of these deaths that shook Pernice, who had worked as an embalmer and in funeral homes since high school.

“We were attacked. These poor, innocent people showed up at work and were attacked,” he said. “That was the difference. And being there and going through the rubble, walking through it, that’s indescribable. You can’t relieve it unless you were there, breathing through the dust.”

Pernice tagged and identified bodies at ground zero for three days following 9/11, then helped members of his own community, just 20 minutes from ground zero, make funeral arrangements for their loved ones.

“I still see a lot of those families if they visit the funeral home,’’ he said. “It just triggers that memory.”

__ Kristine Gill

* * * * *

This weekend will be an odd one for Elaine Pecorelli Dyer.

The North Naples woman lost her son, Thomas Pecorelli, on Sept. 11, 2001, and is now back in Massachusetts to spend time with her family and honor her only son. He was aboard the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

Naples resident Elaine Pecorelli Dyer's son, Thomas Pecorelli, was killed as a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Dyer said that Osama Bin Laden's death does not bring closure for her. 'We're not celebrating anything today. We're just glad that it happened and it's over,' said Dyer. David Albers/Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS

Naples resident Elaine Pecorelli Dyer's son, Thomas Pecorelli, was killed as a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Dyer said that Osama Bin Laden's death does not bring closure for her. "We're not celebrating anything today. We're just glad that it happened and it's over," said Dyer. David Albers/Staff

Since that day, she’s stayed mostly in her home. Dyer often watches old videos of her son, a former TV sportscaster who was 30 when he died. Pecorelli was on American Airlines Flight 11.

“I’m looking forward to seeing his friends and all my family,” Dyer said from Newburyport, Mass., the town where her son grew up.

“Tommy was my child, a son that I wanted so badly,” Dyer said. “His friends are having a bike run to ride to all the places they used to hang out when they were young.”

Dyer said the grief is constant. Since her son’s death, Dyer has been through counseling sessions to help her deal with the tremendous loss.

“He has so many friends, so many people loved him,” Dyer said. “When I watch videos of him I hear his voice, see his face. Then I don’t think about what happened.”

— Chad Gillis

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Staff Writer Chad Gillis contributed to this report.

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