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Happy to Be Here: Time to reflect


It was a crisp and clear September day, not a cloud in sight, just bright blue sky. That was the day two planes took down the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York.

The pilot of one of those planes was Victor Saracini, who lived in Lower Makefield Township, Bucks County.

Next week, on Wednesday, Sept. 11, the Garden of Reflection in Lower Makefield will see the annual ceremonies commemorating the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

The garden pays homage to the 2,973 victims lost in the attacks, in planes, buildings and on the ground, with special recognition of nine from Bucks County. It’s located in Lower Makefield’s Memorial Park, where township supervisors set aside 2.5 acres for the memorial and 2 acres for the Oak Garden Arboretum that surrounds it, an enclave of native oak trees, growing shade that will endure for many years – 135 trees have been donated for the arboretum.

Victor Saracini was the pilot of the Boston to Los Angeles United Flight 175. Ellen Saracini, his widow, spearheaded fundraising efforts to remember the victims of 9-11. At first the funds were to build the garden, which cost more than $2 million. Now the purpose is to maintain the complex in perpetuity through the Garden of Reflection Remembrance Fund, which has a goal of raising $2 million before the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. That amount, Ellen said in a meeting this summer, can earn about $60,000 a year as an investment.

On television screens, millions around the world watched the impact of Victor Saracini’s plane as it hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. News media were taken by surprise with the first attack but cameras caught the second attack, coming 17 minutes later. It was the only collision of the four flights to be filmed that day.

Ellen’s, like so many families, was hard hit by the attacks. She and Victor had two daughters, Kirsten, 13, and Brielle, 10. Today, both of are married and have graduated from college. For the first year, Ellen was disoriented, not knowing where to turn and wishing for a way to continue. She says she was a housewife and expected to remain one. (She met Victory when both were earning commercial pilots’ licenses, by the way.)

After a year, however, Ellen, with friends’ and neighbors’ help, she started raising money and making plans to build a memorial. The garden memorial, with fountains emulating the twin towers, was completed in time for the fifth anniversary of 9-11.

The original idea was to honor Bucks County residents but as the design went forward, the planners realized that all of the victims should be remembered. All of the names are displayed and separate plaques are dedicated to local individuals.

“We wanted to celebrate the people, not the day,” Ellen said.

“As time goes on, the view of the garden will change. It’s important that younger generations honor the people who died.”

That’s why the endowment fund is important. To date, more than $1 million has been raised.

“The unsettling image of United Flight 175 striking the South Tower of the World Trade Center has been forever etched into our collective memories,” the Garden of Reflection website says. “Under the painful implications of this faceless image, it becomes nearly impossible to reflect on the lives lost on September 11, 2001. We remember the plane but may forget the joy brought into the world by our deceased fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, sons, daughters and friends.

“The Garden of Reflection began as an attempt to replace this snapshot representation of American wreckage with a message of peace. Today, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, The Garden stands as an uplifting remembrance and a beacon of hope for us all.”

The nonprofit Remembrance Fund committee includes Ellen Saracini; board chair; Eric Stark, vice chair; Jim McCaffrey of McCaffrey Markets, secretary; Brian MCloskey, treasurer; U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick; Dave Fleming, of Stoney Brook Farm; Fiona Havlish, widow of Donald G. Havlish Jr., who worked in the South Tower; Melodie Homer, widow of First Officer LeRoy W. Homer Jr., United Flight 93; state Sen. Steve Santarsiero; Michael Smerconish; and Mike Fitzpatrick, honorary board member.

The committee has done more than support the building of the memorial.

Last October, largely due to Ellen’s campaigning, President Trump signed into law a bipartisan FAA reauthorization measure that protects passengers and crew. The Saracini Safety Aviation Act of 2018, a provision in the FAA Reauthorization Act, requires the installation of secondary barriers on new passenger aircraft.

The inexpensive, lightweight wire-mesh gates will be installed between the passenger cabin and the cockpit door to block access to the flight deck whenever the cockpit door is opened during flight for pilots’ meals, restroom use, and other reasons.

“The barrier,” Ellen said, “gives the crew time to react to hold off an intruder.” Vulnerability still exists, she said, but this is the first “baby step.”

Fundraising has been Ellen’s full-time job for 18 years. “At one point,” she said, “I want to stop fundraising.”

She wants to be certain the endowment fund is in place so the Garden of Reflection will survive.