SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ – “I can’t believe it’s been 14 years,” Melissa Schulman-Pescatore, 31, said standing in front of her Kendall Park home on Sept. 11. “It definitely has completely changed and impacted my life.”
The event she is referring to, of course, is the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that claimed just shy of 3,000 lives, including the life of her father, Mark Schulman, 47.
“It really just rocked our lives and changed everything,” she said.
Her father, Mark, was a fire prevention engineer and risk consultant for Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc. with offices on the 100th floor of the north twin tower in lower Manhattan.
“Like any other day”
A senior at Old Bridge High School, Melissa, then 17, said goodbye to her father on that sunny September morning as usual, not knowing that her family’s world would forever change in just a few short hours.
On that almost picture-perfect morning, 19 Islamic terrorists boarded four planes in Newark, New Jersey and Boston, Massachusetts, taking them over by using box cutters.
Two of the planes each flew into one of the World Trade Center’s iconic twin towers, the third into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the fourth crashing into a rural Pennsylvania field after passengers attempted to take over the plane from the hijackers.
Both of the towers collapsed after burning for around an hour and a half, creating two huge debris clouds and fires that continued to burn for days.
Mark Schulman was one of the more than 2,700 killed, including more than 350 firefighters and police officers responding to the scene.
Melissa first found out about the attacks while at school, and said she “instantly” knew something was terribly wrong.
“I remember every part of that day so vividly,” Melissa said. “Finding out (about the attacks) in the hallway. I just knew instantly that I wasn’t going to see my dad again. I was really scared.”
Melissa said the family, including Mark, her mother Lori, and younger sister Jamie, 12, “was very close and tight-knit.”
“He was a great dad and did everything with us,” she said. “He coached our soccer teams and came to all of our dance recitals. It was a huge loss.”
Melissa said she called home to her mother only to find out that there was no news about her father and it was up to her if she wanted to stay at the school or go home.
Melissa said that she was conflicted about staying or driving home.
“I had a wonderfully supportive group of friends and teachers,” she said. “So I stayed in school for a while.”
Part of the conflict, she said, was that going home would mean the surreal events of the day would become devastatingly real for her and her family.
At around 1 p.m., Melissa made the drive home to be with her mother and sister, and to begin to come to terms with the horrific events of the day and what they would mean to her family on a personal level.
“Everybody (at home) was in disbelief and didn’t know what to think,” she said. “By the evening, when we hadn’t heard anything, everyone was coming to terms with it and distraught, trying to cope with everything. Which was hard to wrap your brain around on that day because it was so shocking.”
“No average Joe”
Perhaps the ironic part of the tragedy is that, by trade and profession, Mark Schulman was the man who could have figured a way out of such a dire situation due to his experience with fire safety engineering.
According to an article published in the New York Times in December 2001, Lori Schulman told the paper that Mark “did evacuation plans for clients.”
“If anyone knew how to get out, he would have been the one,” she said in the article.
She also remembered her husband as a sports fan, attending New York Giants and Rangers games as often as possible, or watching them on television.
She said that he was dedicated to both of his daughters above everything else, coaching their sports teams, helping Melissa prepare college applications, one of which to get into Princeton University, and helping Jamie prepare for her bat mitzvah, which was scheduled for Nov. 17 of that year.
Melissa said that he was also “very handy” around the house, a trait that would also resonate with his absence.
According to published reports at the time, 800 people attended a memorial service for him at the Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, Monmouth County, where Melissa is the Religious School Director today.
Melissa went on to be valedictorian of her class in 2001, making the theme of her graduation speech about “living every moment to its fullest.”
“It’s so public”
“It’s so public,” Melissa said. “It’s this national shared grief, which, in some ways, is half comforting because you know everyone is thinking about your loved one, but also very difficult to deal with because you feel you don’t have the personal space to remember the loss on your own. You can’t get away from it.”
She said it’s most obvious on the anniversary itself, but that it can also be on other days when the events of 9/11 filter into other news stories or are tied to other happenings.
“In the middle of May, there can be an item on the news that brings everything up fresh,” she said.
Melissa said she has visited the 9/11 Memorial and museum in New York and that she can “feel” that her father is there.
She is also happy that the new Freedom Tower is up on the site.
“I’m really happy that there’s something back in the place where the towers were to reclaim the skyline,” she said. “The museum is fabulous and they did a great job. The memorial is beautiful.”
She said that seeing her father’s name etched into the stone there was very emotional and difficult, bringing back the memories of what happened there 14 years ago and what she lost at that place and time.
“It still hurts,” she said, choking up as tears rolled down the side of her cheek. “But it was nice to be there and see his name. He’s there.”
Through some tears, Melissa recounted the numerous times that the family has felt the loss, perhaps none so intensely as the day Melissa married Mark Pescatore.
“My wedding was very emotional. I felt my dad was there in spirit,” she said. “But not having him to walk me down the aisle, or having the first father/daughter dance is really tough, especially when you see your friends (getting married) and having that when you can’t is really tough.”
Through everything, Melissa said it’s important to live every day to its fullest and to make sure you let the important people in your life know you love them.
“You never know what life will bring,” she said.
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