By Emily Gold Boutilier
Tara Neelakantappa Safronoff '97 lives in a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in a neighborhood lined with trees and double strollers. She and her husband have two children, Caroline, 5, and Liam, 4, who share their mother’s dark hair and warm smile. An English teacher at a private school for girls, where her husband teaches P.E., she takes great pleasure in her career and her family. Life is full; she is happy—but it’s not at all the life she expected to be living.
Ten years ago she married Brock Safronoff '97 at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on Staten Island. The following month, Brock died on the 96th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. They had been married just 38 days. They hadn’t yet seen their wedding photos.
In the days and months after Sept. 11, 2001, Safronoff grieved not only for her husband but also, like any New Yorker, for her city, and like every American, for her country. “I felt like I was dead—that I would spend the rest of my life just waiting to die,” she says.
Over time, though, this young widow found her way back. She returned to her apartment and to her job. If friends had a party, she made herself go. If it was lunchtime, she made herself eat. Slowly, she built a new template for her life. “I’m so amazed,” she says now, “at the degree to which people can suffer, but at the same time, people’s capacity to heal. I just never would have thought it.”
Those widowed on 9/11—and the many who lost children, parents or other loved ones that day—have spent 10 years reimagining and reshaping their lives, and they continue to do so. For Safronoff, the pain is heavy at times, but it feels that way less often than it used to, and for less long. That her husband died in a terrorist attack that defined the decade brings with it special burdens: How would she get through her meetings with lawyers for the Victim Compensation Fund? Would she testify at the sentencing hearing of a 9/11 conspirator? Other questions linger. When does she tell a new friend what happened? What do her students know? How much should she tell her children?
One easy decision was to keep Brock’s last name when she got married again, in 2005, to fellow teacher Matthew Plunkett. “I want to keep that association with Brock,” she said on a warm afternoon in June, as she sat on her living room couch, “especially as the years go by. My life is so different; it’s almost unrecognizable. So I like to have that connection to him.”
Tara and Brock met in their first weeks at Amherst. They became friends spring semester when they were lab partners in physics. That April, at a Smashing Pumpkins concert, she realized how much she liked him. Later that week, she kissed him. “By the end of the summer,” she says, “we were in love”—and in trouble, for running up their parents’ long-distance bills. “It was really intense and serious right away. I kind of knew from the beginning that we were going to be together.”
A starting pitcher on the Amherst baseball team, Brock had been the star pitcher at his high school in Traverse City, Mich. (After 9/11 his parents, Joel and Debra, started a scholarship in his name for student-athletes in Traverse City.) He was recruited to Amherst by then-baseball-coach Bill Thurston, who described him in a post-9/11 issue of The Amherst Student as “one of the finest young men I’ve ever coached.” Brock was a chemistry major whose interests ranged from neuroscience to computer science to Dostoyevsky—he read nearly every word the Russian author ever wrote, Tara says. He collected bootleg concert recordings of his favorite bands, especially Pearl Jam. “He loved collecting in general,” she says—baseball cards, books, knowledge.
Brock took the MCAT senior year, but medical school “wasn’t grabbing him as a passion,” Tara says, and so he decided not commit right away. After graduation he moved to Cincinnati to work as an assistant to a radiologist, while Tara returned to New York—she is from Staten Island—to start a doctoral program in English at Columbia University. Even long-distance, their relationship flourished. “I felt more at home with him than I had ever felt before,” she says. “It was almost this chemical thing.” Before long he joined her in New York, where he pursued a career in computer programming, first for CIBC Oppenheimer and then for Marsh & McLennan, which had offices on floors 93 through 100 of One World Trade Center, the North Tower.
Tara was 24 and Brock was 25 when, over Labor Day weekend in 2000, he asked her to marry him. Around the same time, she decided that grad school wasn’t for her and that she wanted to be a teacher. As they planned their wedding, she searched for a teaching job. In June 2001 they bought a two-bedroom apartment in Park Slope.
About 150 people attended their Catholic wedding ceremony on Aug. 4, 2001, and a reception at the Yale Club. Guests included ’97 classmates Elizabeth Saylor, Jacqueline Rea, Jeff Decker and Elizabeth Bauer, as well as other Amherst friends. The couple honeymooned in South Carolina.
Thursday, Sept. 6, was Tara’s first day as an English teacher at The Brearley School, a girls’ school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. On Sept. 9, new-job nerves kept her awake for most of the night, leaving her tired after work on the 10th. Since it was also raining that Monday, the couple abandoned plans to go to a Yankees game after work and went home instead, where Brock called to wish his brother a happy birthday and Tara went to sleep. In their new household Tara cooked and Brock did the dishes, but he’d made it his goal to do both chores during her first full week at Brearley. Waking on Sept. 11, “we were chatting about what he was going to make that night,” she says. Tara left for work first. “He called after me,” she remembers, “and I turned around. He said, ‘I love you.’”
She was teaching second period when the head of the middle school dashed in to announce that two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. As the children filed into the assembly hall, Safronoff went to the office and reached her mother on the phone. “I was really scared,” Safronoff says, “but there was nothing to say.”
As she would learn, al-Qaida terrorists had crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. The point of impact was between the 93rd and 99th floors. No one on those floors survived. The second attack came 17 minutes later, when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower. Frederick C. Rimmele III ’90, a physician, was on board that plane. A third Amherst victim, Maurita Tam ’01, an executive assistant at Aon Corp., worked on that tower’s 99th floor. (See page 39.)
After hanging up with her mother, Safronoff joined the rest of the school in the assembly hall. She remembers that some children were crying but that she was not. She focused on the students—on keeping them calm. Then a parent came in hysterical, bringing the news that a tower had fallen. “I started screaming and screaming, ‘Don’t tell me which one.’”
People said, “You have to have hope,” but she did not—and it made her feel no better to hear them say it. Later, she checked her home phone; he hadn’t called.
For five weeks, Safronoff stayed with her parents, afraid to return to the apartment where she’d last seen Brock. Life became an “utter, utter nightmare,” and Brock’s memorial service, on Sept. 29, provided her no comfort: “I remember everyone crying and [myself] not being able to cry, and being aware in this new way that I was never going to see him again.” His brother, Aaron, gave the eulogy. Tom Gerety, then-president of Amherst, attended, as did professors and baseball teammates. The Safronoffs’ wedding photographer enlarged a photo to display.
Along with grief, death brings bureaucracy, and as his wife, it was Tara’s job to cancel Brock’s credit cards and file his death certificate. She remembers that workers who handled the forms would almost flinch when they saw her. On the phone, they would sob upon learning why she was calling. Still, she didn’t much mind the paperwork; it gave her something to do for Brock. Craving structure and normalcy, she went back to work around Columbus Day. At that point she also moved back to her apartment, which she found surprisingly peaceful: “I needed to be by myself a lot. And of course nobody wanted me to be by myself.”
“Desperate for a framework” for her grief, she read articles and books about people who’d lost spouses at a young age and remembered a documentary she’d seen by and about a woman whose husband died in Vietnam. Others described grieving as a lonely process, but for Safronoff, it was anything but: Every face she passed on the street mirrored her sadness. “The whole city,” she says, “was traumatized.” This was both a comfort and a burden. While she did not join a support group, she did return to the therapist who’d helped her sort out her career goals, and she also reached out to relatives of other victims, including Maurita Tam’s father and brother; Annie MacRae ’04, who lost her sister Catherine in the attacks; and the widow of one of Brock’s coworkers. The two young widows became close, “navigating the whole thing together,” Safronoff says.
And there was much to navigate, including, eventually, the matter of when and how to date again. At the end of the 2001-02 school year, Safronoff enrolled in a French class, but when a man in the class mildly flirted with her, she panicked, went home and never returned. “I looked like a normal 26-year-old,” she says. “But I was not. I felt 100 years old.”
That’s why her crush on Matthew Plunkett took her by surprise. The dark-haired gym teacher joined the staff at Brearley at the start of the 2002-03 school year. In January 2003 she asked him out to the American Museum of Natural History. The date was a success before it even began: to her, it was enough that she was interested in the first place. “Just to have that feeling again—I was so proud of myself,” she says. Before the date, she told Matthew about Brock; to her surprise, he hadn’t heard.
The first date led to a second, with 9/11—“this big thing that we weren’t talking about”—always in the background. When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Safronoff panicked, worried that “everything was going to be awful again.” Plunkett anticipated her reaction. He already seemed to know her so well. On the same day she had her first meeting with lawyers for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, she had plans to meet Plunkett’s brother for the first time. But the 9/11 meeting left her crying for hours and so she canceled on Plunkett. Later, she decided to meet them anyway. “My face was puffy from crying, but I felt I had to get out of my apartment,” she remembers. “I’ll never forgot Matt’s face when he saw me—he was delighted and proud. I sat down, eagerly ordered a steak and red wine, and tore into the bread basket, not realizing that Matt, wanting to protect my privacy, had told his brother and his brother’s friends that I was home with a stomach virus.” The night remains one of her favorite memories.
“Those years were so hard,” Safronoff says, “because I was straddling these two worlds as I tried to get better.” And that was the goal—to get better, not to “get over” Brock or to stop being sad about his death, but to heal, to take pleasure in life. Thinking back, she says that one turning point was the end of the process of the Victim Compensation Fund. In return for their agreeing not to sue the airlines involved, 97 percent of victims’ families received compensation, including Safronoff. For her, it was one of the final bureaucratic tasks regarding Brock’s death. “Each of those tasks was unbelievably painful, increasingly so as time went on,” she wrote in an email in July. “I would be teaching class and then run outside so that I could make a private phone call from the sidewalk to my lawyers—we would talk of horrific things, and I would see people stare at me as I felt my face contort with anguish.” She would then dash to another class or meet with a student about an essay. “It was torturous to be switching between these two worlds, one where I had a meaningful job and a joyful relationship with Matt, and one where all was gruesome death and shattering loss.”
For Safronoff, there are two things about 9/11 that bring some solace. The first is that Brock was on the 96th floor, in the impact zone. “As far as I know, Brock had no idea of anything that was happening,” she says. “His death was too soon, but it was merciful. He was unaware of it. I felt, especially then, that I had the hard part. That was a consolation for me.”
The second is that 9/11 gave meaning to and an outline for the rest of her life, which she wants to live “in opposition to the hatefulness that led to that act. It helped motivate me to heal myself. He died because someone had intentionally killed him. I felt if I let this crush me, that they’d be winners.” She remembers going to the ocean in 2002 and noticing the beauty of the world around her. “If I lived long enough,” she thought at the time, “I knew I’d be happy.”
She also draws comfort from her Catholic faith, from her close relationships to friends and family, from her colleagues and career and from the warmth of strangers. Especially during the first few years, she says, “I was in awe of how incredible people can be.” Her sixth graders tried relentlessly to make her laugh. After she told the mail carrier she didn’t want Brock’s junk mail, she never saw a piece of it again. A teacher at a neighborhood karate studio pumped her fist in solidarity as Safronoff walked by with groceries. “These people know,” Safronoff thought, “and they are rooting for me.”
She is grateful to have remained close to the friends she had before. After 9/11, the couple with whom she and Brock socialized most often—Jeff Decker ’97 and Elizabeth Saylor ’97—had her to dinner almost weekly. Safronoff attended the Decker-Saylor wedding in 2002 and was touched that Saylor called soon afterward to make sure she was okay. Decker and Saylor also welcomed Plunkett into their circle.
Today, the hard work of healing continues. Anniversaries and birthdays are expectedly difficult, but being able to anticipate the pain makes it easier to bear. Safronoff remembers crying on Sept. 10, 2010. Her children wanted to know what was wrong. “So I told them that before I married Daddy I married someone else.” That man had died around this time of the year, she continued, and so she often feels sad around this time of the year. (“Dad! Mom married someone else!” Caroline announced when Plunkett got home.) For now, Safronoff does not plan to tell the children more: “I don’t want to get them scared.”
Sometimes grief bubbles up without warning, as it does whenever 9/11 comes up in casual conversation. An acquaintance might bring up a post-9/11 career switch, for example, and “I just freeze and wait for it to be over,” she says. Five years ago such an exchange would shake her for days; today she’ll be sad for half an hour.
Safronoff has mostly stayed out of public debates concerning 9/11. She made an exception in 2006, when she received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice inviting her to testify against Zacarias Moussaoui, who faced the death penalty for his role in the attacks. “I’ve always been against the death penalty,” she says. She wanted someone—anyone—to know that not every 9/11 widow wanted Moussaoui put to death. Though she reached out to CNN and other news outlets, no one seemed interested in her opinion. Then she connected with the group September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, which was working to a similar end. Soon, Moussaoui’s defense team asked her to testify in the sentencing hearing. She considered the request but ultimately declined: she was pregnant, with a due date close to the trial date. (Looking back, she also feels that testifying would have set back her healing.) When Moussaoui received a life sentence instead of the death penalty, she felt grateful to those 9/11 relatives who’d testified for the defense.
Safronoff has not attended a formal ceremony at Ground Zero since October 2001, when she went to a memorial service with Brock’s parents and her parents. She’s visited on her own or with Plunkett a few times since. “Of course I see the site frequently when driving up the West Side Highway,” she emailed in July. “Lately, my kids go wild with excitement when they see the huge construction vehicles at the site; when that happens, Matt and I don’t say anything, but we exchange looks. I cringe at their innocence and wonder how I will ever explain this to them.”
This Sept. 11 she plans to return to Ground Zero. She expects to attend the official ceremony and to visit the new 9/11 Memorial, which opens that day. Next year a museum at the site will exhibit personal effects of the victims. She donated some keepsakes to the effort, including concert ticket stubs that Brock had saved and a copy of their wedding invitation. “Once I did it,” she says, “it felt good.” It made her feel close to him.
In fact, she credits the closeness she and Brock shared—and that she still feels towards him—with helping her to heal. “All the love and support I felt from him when he was alive,” she explains, “I also felt when he was gone.” As a result, she believes, her grief was less complex than it might have been otherwise. Plunkett, too, provides love and support. “He’s just so in tune with my whole experience,” she says. “It’s gotten to be this thing that we share.” When she visits Ground Zero this Sept. 11, “My plan is to go with Matt. That’s just what feels natural to both of us.”
In the months before Sept. 11, 2011, Brock appeared often in Tara’s dreams. “I want the rest of my life to honor his memory,” she says. Thirty-eight days before he died, she promised to love him for the rest of her life. Ten years later, Tara Safronoff knows that she will.
Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor of Amherst magazine.
Top photo by Samuel Masinter '04
Other photos courtesy of Tara Safronoff