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Twin Towers of Tragedy

Heroism of Firefighters

THE PAIN LINGERS: “I don’t think New Yorkers will ever lose the fear of being hit again,” Brooklyn-born Joanne Ronaldson told me.

“The feeling of being vulnerable, the horrible feeling of what that must have been like,” she said. “It’s so in their minds that this could happen again. New York is still a prime target.” In New York, Joanne said, “It’s like it was yesterday. It will forever affect my family.”

Barney Brantingham

Joanne, a Santa Barbara pediatric nurse (who was not in New York on 9/11/01) hails from an Irish family of firefighters. “Each in my family was spared in some way,” most because they’d just gone off duty and one who was supposed to work that day but had switched. All rushed back to the Twin Towers upon hearing of the planes crashing into the buildings.

Her family knew 65 of the firefighters who died that day. And to add to her sadness, she still mourns the death of her beloved firefighter brother Al Ronaldson, who died a hero’s death in a collapsing building a few months earlier.

Her Galway-born father, Joe, was a New York fire captain, and three brothers and six nieces and nephews proudly wore the helmets similar to headgear found in the smoking ruins. Joanne is one of nine children. A close friend was late to the towers for an appointment that day and was a block away at the time. “He saw people jumping out of windows, floating in the air to their deaths,” Joanne related, and he still awakens from nightmares of seeing bodies falling.

After 9/11, “My family went to about 100 funerals, sometimes two or three a day, for months.” They were asked how they could stand it. “They said, ‘How can we not go, to support the families?’” Joanne is still stunned at the enormity of so much pain felt by so many. “I knew what I had for one — my brother.” Soon after the horrors of 9/11, Joanne went to New York for a wedding and by chance met a man who praised her late brother for saving his grandchild and other children after a tornado hit a school. “He said he lost a son who was a police officer, a firefighter son and a daughter who had been working on the 60th floor of one of the towers.”

A polyglot city, quilted with countless ethic neighborhoods, came together after 9/11 “and was united,” she said. The big-city clan of firefighters “is like a family.”

Joanne displayed a scrapbook thick with newspaper clippings about Al’s death, honoring him as a hero. Since then, a half-marathon and golf tournament have been held in his memory, proceeds going to 9/11 families. More than 12,500 attended his funeral. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner gave Al’s five children college scholarships. A street was named after him. “It’s representative of what New Yorkers do when they recognize a hero,” she said.

During the memorials and annual events for her brother, Joanne got to know many firefighters, and her grief was overwhelming when so many perished in the towers. “The Twin Towers represented New York,” she said. “It was such a proud place.” To residents, “The ghost of the Twin Towers is still there.”

When she’d visited the towers in July before 9/11, “It seemed like a safe place to be.” Now, she said, “I don’t feel the same way about being in a high place.” When she visited the Empire State Building later, “I can’t tell you how scary it was to be in such a tall building.”

Joanne plans to walk out on the Santa Barbara Breakwater Saturday and think about her brother, all those who lost their lives, those who lost loved ones, and the fallen firefighters her family knew.

S.B. POST OFFICE FOR SALE: The U.S. Postal Service wants to sell the downtown Santa Barbara post office, and the City of Santa Barbara is giving preliminary thought to possibly relocating the police station there. No decision has been made, and the idea hasn’t been taken to the City Council yet.

The city was looking into a major renovation of the existing 1959 cop shop on Figueroa Street when postal authorities dropped by City Hall recently with word that it wants to put the large, under-used building on the market. According to sources, other local organizations have also been contacted by postal folks. They would like to lease back the front counter space to continue public use of postal services, but even that’s not a necessity, apparently.

While the location kitty-corner from City Hall is seen as a plus, negatives are shortage of parking and probable stringent seismic requirements for the 1937 building. The art deco building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

SISTERS SAY ADIOS: It’s the end of an era for the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Santa Barbara. The order arrived in 1908 and founded St. Francis Hospital. The hospital closed in 2003, and now the last two nuns, Sister Christine Bowman and Sister Gloria Therese Cabrera, are heading off to work at St. Anne’s, a Los Angeles home for at-risk youth and pregnant and parenting adolescents.

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