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A sister lost; a legacy endures

By John Manley

[Sara Manley Harvey's photo appears on a wall at the Fabretta Center in Nicaragua.]

Ten years' time has allowed plenty of opportunity for reflection on the aftermath of what has become the defining event of a lifetime for several generations of Americans. My family suffered its own loss; in my case, my younger sister, Sara Manley Harvey. There is every reason to be angry and defiant in the face of the events of the morning of September 11, 2001. Yet, to be reduced to the level of furor that inspired the illegitimate pilots of those four airplanes seems to me to repudiate the bedrock principles upon which I and my family have been raised, and would begin a cycle of the tit-for-tat kind of mindset in which much of the Middle East has been mired, not for mere years or decades, but for centuries.

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We're probably luckier than many of the others who've had to contemplate their loved ones' final hours or minutes. Sara's office on the 92nd floor of the North Tower of the Trade Center had a northern exposure that placed it directly below the entry point of the plane that struck that building. Imagine a car racing past you at 80 miles per hour; pretty fast, huh? Now multiply that speed by a factor of five to try to begin to understand the physical havoc wreaked by a jetliner upon glass and metal. Likely, as she was sitting at her desk, she might have had time to become aware of a shadow and a loud noise before the ceiling caved in on her and the floor collapsed beneath her. I find it unlikely that she could have remained conscious for very long in the stew of debris and fire in which she was trapped. She probably never knew what hit her and suffered briefly, if at all.

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Her remains have never been identified. I've spent the past decade wondering how differently I'd have been affected had I reason to suspect that she was perched on a ledge that morning, 92 floors above the ground, staring out at the relative calm of New Jersey on a beautiful late summer morning, while flames licked perilously closer to her, with jumping to a quick death increasingly seeming the best option. My heart goes out to those who have to contemplate such a scenario.

Sara's family and closest friends also had the benefit of feting her at a goodbye party, although nobody at the time could have known that her wedding would be a farewell. She was married one month to the day before she died, affording everyone the opportunity to see Sara at her absolute best. She got to spend the last month of her life basking in the glow of a European honeymoon and the first few weeks of domestic bliss. Having such a vast and strong support system as Sara and her husband Bill did made it easier to find others to lean upon while trying to come to grips with this tragedy.

I also had the opportunity to witness New York at its best. While standing for hours in lines to process forms, a curious metamorphosis became apparent to me. The cynical, jaded New Yorker was nowhere to be found; instead, the streets were teeming with caring volunteers, seeking nothing in exchange for the opportunity to assuage my sorrow through a laundry list of small acts of kindness. This, I'll never forget, and while I hope that I never have to witness its like again, I take comfort in knowing that a heart really does beat beneath the city's hard shell.

Sara's demise is rather thick with irony as she cut her business teeth at an early age, excelling in fundraising for a high school exchange program that was founded with the mission of eradicating the very kind of ignorance that results in warfare. Although she never availed herself of the opportunity to spend her school years in a foreign land, her unyielding desire to peddle all manner of fundraising paraphernalia (often on behalf of her older sisters, well before she even attended that high school) was instrumental in the program's viability. Sadly, such programs seem to be in steady demise for myriad reasons just as they are most needed.

Sara's death, however, has not been in vain. Her spirit continues to render positive results on two fronts. At Georgetown University, her alma mater, a scholarship, which has become self-sustaining, was established in her name. Since then, several fellow alumni of hers have gone on to pursue their ambitions, relieved to a degree of the crushing debt burdens that hamper many college graduates. In yet another irony, one of the scholarship recipients has found a calling at the Department of Homeland Security, a department that did not exist on Sept. 11, 2001.

Farther from home, Sara is remembered by the Fabretto Children's Foundation, a charity that seeks to enable impoverished Nicaraguan children and their families to break the cycle of poverty and reach their full potential through programs promoting education, nutrition, health and community development. Sara's involvement with Fabretto led to her meeting her husband. Here, too, she so excelled at fundraising that the organization has constructed and dedicated a multi-purpose building in her honor in Somoto, Nicaragua. The president of Nicaragua and the American ambassador spoke at the dedication, which was attended by several other dignitaries, as well. A photograph of Sara is permanently displayed in the building. Fabretto also honored Sara by recognizing her with an award called the Corazon de Oro ("Heart of Gold"), which is awarded annually to a person who has made a major contribution (not necessarily financial) to Fabretto; she was also the award's first recipient.

There are, of course, lingering regrets. There's the phone call I took from Sara the afternoon of Sept. 10 to arrange my father's birthday dinner later that week. This was the first time we'd spoken since she returned from her honeymoon and she began to tell me about it, but I suggested she wait until the dinner, when time would be more abundant. We will never know the joy and love that we might have been graced with had she given birth to any children. There would have been more events and get-togethers that would have engendered their own stories, surely to be exaggerated out of proportion over the course of years.

On the other hand, Sara will never be any older than she was on that fateful morning 10 years ago. Her husband has since remarried and been blessed with two children. Perhaps, most importantly, the rest of us have been tested and come through with our faith intact.

John Manley is a long-time Irish Echo sports columnist, reporting on boxing and golf.