Sept. 11 took terrible toll in Middletown, N.J.

September 11, 2011

As the 10th year after arrived in this suburban commuter town Sunday morning, there was the sound of cars swooshing along Highway 35, of the 8:22 whistling into the station and, nearby, high heels clicking along a paved path.

Alone for a moment, Gail Bechtoldt walked through her town’s memorial garden, a trail that winds past crape myrtles, locust trees and a procession of 37 granite markers representing the toll that the Sept. 11 attacks took on Middletown, one of the largest losses in any community except New York City.

As President Obama began speaking at Ground Zero, Bechtoldt stopped at the marker for Gregg Reidy, folded her arms and cleared her throat in the quiet, suburban morning. “St. Mary’s church,” she said, explaining their connection. As millions watched the televised service in Lower Manhattan, Bechtoldt walked over to the marker of Patrick Hoey — “a great Irish guy” — whom she knew through local charity work. Around a curve, there was the smiling, sandblasted image of Louis Minervino, a frequent customer at her flower shop. She cried, kissed two fingers and pressed them to the stone.

“It’s just — ” she said, looking at the markers of friends and neighbors and familiar faces. “It’s still suffocating.”

To be in Middletown on Sunday was to be reminded that although Sept. 11 brought personal tragedy to families and defined an entire decade for the United States, it was also a day that left gaping holes in communities such as this one, where residents are bound by commuter trains and deli lines, and now, the shared experience of that bright September morning.

From the high-rise enclaves of Manhattan to suburban towns strung along the highways and parkways of Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey, people stopped to remember not only lost husbands and mothers but also the neighbor they waved at in the lobby, the soccer coach, the carpool buddy, or the familiar face from the long commute to Lower Manhattan. In Middletown, Mae Boguszewski remembered James Thomas Murphy.

“I just knew his face from the train station,” she said, explaining that she found out his name after he died, that he worked as a trader for Cantor Fitzgerald, as so many here did.

She walked through the Middletown WTC Memorial Gardens, a place built with guidance from a local committee and donations from companies such as Pantaleo Electric and Stavola Contracting and others that dot the strip malls along Kings Highway and Highway 35. Physically, the garden is in the southeastern area of Middletown, which doesn’t really have a middle and isn’t really a town as much as a collection of neighborhoods off shopping thoroughfares.

And yet this weekend, at least, people seemed drawn to the memorial garden, as if it had become their communal ground, a touchstone.

“We don’t really have a center,” Boguszewski said after her walk. “I mean, I can only think of the train station, and — this. I guess this is it.”

Ten years ago, many Middletown residents had gone to work in the morning and arrived home hours later covered in soot from the fallen towers or having lost shoes running from debris. In the weeks that followed, they counted the dead by how many cars were left in the commuter parking lot and which houses were still dark. When a neighbor saw Andrew Leong on the train without his wife, who always commuted with him, he asked Leong whether everything was okay. It was.

“I took it for granted that no one cared,” Leong said Sunday, when he had arrived at the garden soon after the sun rose, along with a steady stream of others.

They arrived mostly alone or in twos, people in jogging shorts, with cups of coffee, or before church in their suits and ties. A young man in a blue Middletown Fire Department uniform walked deliberately along the path of headstone-like markers, stopping to salute each one.

“My best friend’s mom died, and — ” he said before cutting himself off and leaving, red-eyed.

David Kelly came in his paramedic uniform, walked to the marker for Swede Chevalier, knelt, bowed his head, then headed to work.

“My best friend,” he said. “You just realize how much they’ve missed.”

Matt Yetman came carrying a pot of mums, which he placed in front of Reidy’s marker. He rubbed his knuckles across the name of his brother-in-law, then paused in front of Anthony Ventura and Felicia Hamilton, relatives of neighbors.

As 8:46 a.m. approached, the time the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Yetman was talking about what the garden had become over the years.

“Sometimes you’re here alone,” he said. “Sometimes you see friends here.”

As Gail Bechtoldt made her way along the walkway, another woman passed by.

“Hey, Gail,” she said.

“Hey, good to see you,” Bechtoldt said, and squeezed the woman’s arm.

They looked at each other a moment.

“Yeah,” the woman said.

“Yeah,” Bechtoldt said, her eyes teary again. As the chilly morning went on, neighbors wiped smudges off markers and brought cellophane-wrapped bouquets for people they had met at pool parties and dinners a couple of times.

Others came not because they knew anyone who died, but to pay homage to lives that bore such a resemblance to their own.

Leong and his wife sat on a bench across from the marker for Rodney James Wotton, a fellow commuter.

Deborah and Don Schad paused in front of the one for Robert Andrew Spencer, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald.

“We feel very blessed, because our son had an interview for a position at 9:30 that morning in one of the twin towers,” Deborah Schad said. “It had been canceled two days before. So that brings it home all the more.”

About 11 a.m., Lynn Gordon arrived. She began the walk composed. She came to Michael Patrick McDonnell, stopped and wiped a wet leaf off an “A.” She moved along, cleared a smudge from the “th” in Kathleen Casey’s marker and a spot on the “H” in Felicia Hamilton’s. By the end of the walk, Gordon, who has lived in Middletown for 15 years and only tangentially knew some of those lost, was in tears.

“It’s a hard day — a really hard day,” she said. “I didn’t know any of these people. I mean, I know people who know them. But I just felt I had to do something. I’ve been to the memorial at Ground Zero. I’ve been to Washington. But I think I just needed to be closer to home today. They were our neighbors.”

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