A son buried five times

By David Usborne

By DAVID USBORNE in New York

Mark Petrocelli lived the New York story. Born into a family of blue-collar firefighters, by September 11, 2001, he had pulled himself up to become a commodities trader for a fancy firm in the World Trade Centre.

Today, his is still a New York story. There is no closure to the grieving of Mark. His body parts are still coming to his family and the mourning may never be allowed to end.

Spend a moment today thinking of his parents, Al and Ginger Petrocelli, a retired couple from New York City. Theirs has been no ordinary journey of mourning. Yet it has also hardly been unique among the families of September 11 victims.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that at least Mark was formally identified fairly quickly after the tragedy, thanks to DNA matching in the New York Medical Examiner's Office.

So many families have had to find ways to grieve without having even a fragment of their loved ones to honour. But his remains have been coming to Al and Ginger piecemeal. And still they do not have all of him.

The Petrocellis had more to do than simply attend the second anniversary commemoration service at Ground Zero.

When it was over, Al, Ginger and Mark's widow, Nicole, would be returning to their neighbourhood on Staten Island to perform another important duty. They have to bury another consignment of Mark's remains.

This batch was identified by the medical examiner just a week ago.

It must take a special kind of spirit to cope with such an ordeal. But the Petrocellis seem to possess it. This is now the fifth time that parts of their son have been identified.

That is five different times they have had to relive the memories and find ways to touch him and tell him they haven't forgotten.

"This is uncharted territory for all of us," Ginger said yesterday. Speaking from the front room of her home in the community of Huguenot on Staten Island, she was preparing for yet one more chore on Mark's behalf.

With Al and Nicole, she was preparing to join a rally at Ground Zero to protest at plans to redevelop the area with a new soaring skyscraper and acres of commercial space.

However long the trail of mourning, no one in the Petrocelli clan was going to forget Mark quickly. Al, a retired fireman, has erected a memorial for his son in their small front garden. Lawn has been replaced by brick, a flagpole carries the star-spangled banner.

There is a photograph of Mark on his wedding day and a piece of a World Trade Centre steel girder.

Ginger manages to explain that in many ways they have been lucky. No more so than this week. Because, for the first time, she was allowed to actually touch the newest portion of remains, which consisted of much of Mark's right femur, his kneecap, some muscle and a piece of his skull.

It was Nicole, a teacher who was newly married to Mark when the terrorists struck, who begged the undertakers to keep the parts in the same plastic pouch provided by the Medical Examiner's Office before placing them in the usual sealed box for cremation.

"I felt his bones," Ginger confides, giving away her satisfaction at achieving this feat. "It gave me something that I at least touched him."

She and Al are in frequent touch with other families of the victims. And it is true, she says, that many of them say that she is among the lucky ones. Because they have received parts of Mark, even if not all at once.

The official death toll at the World Trade Centre is 2792. But of those, the remains of only 1520 have been identified. Thousands of other parts that are not identified will be interred at the site soon.

"That's what they say to us, not that we should be thankful, but at least that we have something," Ginger says of other relatives who have not received identified parts.

"They just wish they, too, had something. How do these families cope with having nothing back from their loved ones? So many victims just disintegrated."

The Petrocellis learned on September 25, 2001, that their son had been formally identified as a victim through dental records. A month later they learned that his upper torso had been identified.

In November other parts of Mark were found. Then in March last year, the office came back with news that they had four more parts, including his heart.

What his parents think they know is that Mark was blown straight out of the tower the moment the hijacked plane hit. This gives them a measure of solace.

"Yes, that helps a little," says Ginger. "We believe it was very, very fast.

"To think of him being trapped in there for very long would have been too much. But I really believe that it hit him fast."

But how is it possible to keep having to revisit the pain?

"We are not finished with it, in fact, we really don't see a time when this process will be finished so long as they have parts there," Ginger says.

"And as long as they have body parts they are working on - remaining tissue - there will always be the chance that there will be more of him.

"I don't believe we will ever have the chance to let the grieving go. It is our way of life right now. I am not looking for that to change."

In all of this, Al and Ginger still have space in their souls to nurture some anger.

That is why they were driving from Staten Island to Ground Zero yesterday to join the protest. They are infuriated that the city is moving ahead with plans to raise a new tower on the site before even a single stone has been laid for a memorial to the dead.

"They have lied to us from the beginning and they are using this terrible thing that has happened to our loved ones to build bigger and better. Shame on them," says Ginger.

"Not yet, not yet. Do the right thing first and do the memorial. Everybody knows that that would be the right thing to do."

In spite of their frustration, the Petrocellis never hesitated about attending the remembrance service at Ground Zero today.

They planned to be up at dawn to leave with Nicole at 6am and drive to Lower Manhattan. On her lap, Ginger would be cradling a small bunch of pale roses.

"We will go down to the bottom with the other families and I will lay down the roses there," she said.

Almost in a whisper, she adds: "And I will say a prayer for Mark."

They all know that their family life will never be the same, even if the slow delivery of Mark's remains finally comes to an end.

The old routines of a tightly-knit New York family are undone forever. Like the Sunday lunches when everyone would gather in Al and Ginger's kitchen to share a ritual meal of meatballs and macaroni.

How much pain and commemoration can you pack into a single week? There was the protest yesterday, the memorial service today as well as a visit to the Brooklyn fire house where Mark's brother Al jnr is an officer for a Mass in Mark's honour.

Then there will be the afternoon visit to Staten Island cemetery for the burial of the cremated remains of the newest parts from Mark's body.

Even then the work of grieving will not be over for the Petrocelli family.

Tomorrow is a special day also - it would have been Mark's 31st birthday.

- INDEPENDENT

Herald Feature: The Sept 11 attacks

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