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U.S.: Four Years After 9/11, A Father Tries To Keep Son’s Memory Alive (Part 2)

  • Nikola Krastev --> New York, 10 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It's four years since 9/11 but for Herb Ouida, the years have done little to dull the pain. His voice still trembles when he recalls the day he lost his son, Todd, in the World Trade Center. Both had been at work in the North Tower -- Herb on the 77th floor and Todd on the 105th, where he was a foreign-currency-options trader for Cantor Fitzgerald. When the first passenger jet slammed into the tower, Herb somehow made it out but Todd was trapped. Herb hasn't seen his son since the morning they set out for work together. But he refuses to live in the past. When Todd was a child, he suffered severely from a panic disorder that forced him to leave school for three years of treatment in a therapy clinic. Today, Herb, who is of Arabic origin, has given up his old job as executive vice president of the World Trade Centers Association to set up the Todd Ouida Children's Foundation, created both to celebrate his son's tragically truncated life and to provide financial support for psychological services for other children who suffer from panic disorder but are from poorer families. In this second part of our three-part series on 9/11, RFE/RL speaks to Herb Ouida, and begins by asking him how he and his wife have learned to cope with the memory of that day.

Ouida: This is something you live with for the rest of your life. Everyone knows there's no greater pain than to lose a child. And it's even more difficult now as the anniversary approaches again. My wife told me the other day she's shutting down. In the middle of August, she's shutting down. She means she's protecting herself. But we do know that being with our grandchildren and being with other children is a means perhaps of diversion, but also of healing, because in helping other people we also hope that in a small way our little foundation will make the world a better place. And that's what we need. We can curse the darkness but we prefer to create the light, to tell our story and in telling our story, people are always telling us: "Thank you, I have had that problem, I've seen it in my family, I suffer from panic attacks, I have anxiety." And we say, ok, let our foundation be a source of inspiration.

RFE/RL: In what ways do you think 9/11 has changed the American psyche?

Ouida: Our image of Arabs and the people of the Middle East has changed and I think it's going to take a long time for that to be corrected. For people that are Muslims -- my father was Lebanese -- for people who follow Islam, this is a terrible categorization and stereotyping for a whole group of a billion people. Secondly, we are very prone to give up our freedom. The Patriot Act in the United States has limited us in many ways and taken away many freedoms. And people are very passive about it because they're afraid. The third thing is people feel out of control. And when I go out to support the foundation in Todd's name, I say to them: "I'm giving you a chance to do something to control your own destiny. Do something good. Don't sit back and just wring your hands and say the world is terrible."

RFE/RL: Herb, what do you remember of that day four years ago?

Ouida: Todd and I had gone to work together as we did every day and I said to him as we got to the train station, "I'm gonna take the ferry," the next and last part of the trip. And he said, "No, daddy, I'm going to take the train." And I said to him, "Have a great day, sweetheart." Those were my last words to Todd. I'm the last person in my family to see him and be with him. He later spoke to my wife after the plane hit. The building shook and Todd's first thought was of his mother. He called her: "Mommy, you're going to hear there was an explosion at the World Trade Center. Don't worry. I'm going to the stairs." He was a child who had suffered from panic attacks and at the moment of greatest danger he showed the greatest courage, because the next question my wife said to him: "How about daddy?" "I've just spoken to him and he's fine." That wasn't true but he comforted his mother. On my floor, the glass case in my office exploded and I started down the stairs and I was frightened and I was trembling but the courage of the other people on the stairs and the firemen coming up the stairs gave me hope and then I stood outside the World Trade Center after one hour it took me to get down the flight and I looked back and I saw the fire on those floors in both buildings and I believed very much that Todd, only 28 floors above me, would get out.

RFE/RL: How long was it before you gave up hope of finding Todd?

Ouida: My wife immediately, when she saw the building, she lost hope. I went to the hospitals, I went with the signs, I took his picture but after three days and when he didn't call, I prayed he was in some kind of a state he couldn't call. But I kept listening to my wife saying about the phone call that he made to her and I thought: maybe, maybe he got out. He called her. But I knew.

RFE/RL: Do you still meet the other survivors of 9/11?

Ouida: I've got together for almost two years every week with others in the support group for therapy and today I even got a call from one of my support group. And I understand the pain. When they come to me and they say: "Herb, we want them to take the remains and bring them to the World Trade Center, I didn't get anything for my son," they told me, "you got remains. I didn't get any." I understand, I say to them, I understand. I sign your letters. I agree with you. Whatever you say. However, with me and with my energy and with my strength and my vision and my family, we are looking forward. We are trying in our own little way to help children. What kind of world are we leaving them? That's much more important than what we build at the World Trade Center.