In the garden of the 9/11 dead, a spirit of consolation is stirring

Middletown, New Jersey, lost 37 residents in the Twin Towers. David Usborne talks to the bereaved about the week's events

Look about as you walk the brick path through the 9/11 Memorial Garden in Middletown, New Jersey, and you will see some changes from a few days ago. A cluster of red and blue helium balloons shaped as hearts have snagged in bushes by one of the memorial stones. By another lies a new note in a picture frame.

These tiny tributes may not be as grand as the wreath laid by President Barack Obama at Ground Zero yesterday to honour the perished in the Twin Towers tragedy and mark the snaring at last of the perpetrator of it, Osama bin Laden, but they may speak more directly to the poignancy of this long-delayed moment in America. "Thank you to our troops," the message in the frame read. "Justice was finally served".

It had been placed on the ground in front of the stone for Kenneth Tietjen – "Beloved Son, Brother and Friend" – a police officer who died on that day. The balloons were delivered by Kristen Grazioso, 14, who like so many returned to the Memorial Garden in Middletown when she heard the news that Bin Laden was finally erased. Her father, John Grazioso, died in the Twin Towers when she was just four.

If the spirits stirred a little at Ground Zero this week, the hope in this town is that something in the souls of the living and the dead will have shifted just a tiny bit also. It may be easiest to sense at the Memorial Garden, which is a reminder of the town's special woe: 37 residents of Middletown died in the Twin Towers. Only Hoboken, across the river from Manhattan, suffered a higher toll.

Across from the Memorial is the train station where on that clear blue morning in September, so many Middletown residents caught the train, as they did every day, for the 45 minute commute to Manhattan. As Bruce Briggs, a former New York City sanitation worker who helped clear the wreckage of the mound at Ground Zero, recalled yesterday, the town only had its first clue of the loss it had suffered when the station staff noticed how many cars did not leave the car park that day or for several days after.

"You know, for a while, we didn't really know what had happened to them," Mr Briggs, 55, remarked, nailing up pictures for an amateur photography exhibition in the town's arts centre yesterday. "For a while we hoped maybe they were buried but would come out, but we didn't really know."

In fact, Middletown had that day lost more of its people than during the First World War and the Second World War combined. Today, it is hard to find someone in this community of about 60,000, a large number of whom are of Irish and Italian descent, who did not have some connection with what happened in Lower Manhattan that September day.

Among them is Christopher Magnotta, 27, who yesterday was buying a new season ticket at Middletown station. Even though he was only 17 at the time, he had been helping an uncle at his commodities brokerage firm at Ground Zero and had stopped to go back to school here only one day before the attacks. His uncle survived.

"I am extremely happy they got Bin Laden," he said. "But I don't think getting him is going to make this country safe necessarily. But if you keep chopping at the snake eventually you will get down to the tail."

Mike Valese, 46, a parks and recreation worker for the town has multiple connections. His son's girlfriend was in Tower One when the planes hit, but survived. And he helped build the Middletown Memorial which features one stone for each of its 37 lost residents and a large arch in polished black granite at the entrance. Yesterday, he was back at the garden mowing the lush, spring grass.

Like everyone here Mr Valese hopes that the killing of Bin Laden will offer at least some consolation to those who lost members of their immediate families here. "I think knowing that he is gone is going to ease a little of the pain, and I believe that this week they have been brought a little closer to their loved ones again."

Lisa Strydio, who is a council worker of the neighbouring town of Keansburg got up yesterday and decided she needed to visit the Memorial Garden here on the day that President Obama would be at Ground Zero. With her husband, Danny, at her side, she walked the brick path while recalling seeing the smoke from the towers from a hospital where she worked close to Columbia University at the other end of Manhattan. She too, at the time, had no idea so many of her neighbours were to be among the death rolls. Danny's job for a week after – for the same hospital – was help pull out body parts from the wreckage. His cousin, who worked in the Towers, got out safely.

"This town got hit the hardest and I am glad they caught him," Lisa says of the demise of Bin Laden. "But do I think this brings the whole terrorism crisis to an end? Absolutely not. I am afraid now of retaliation." As for the effect it will have on the town, she said: "I think on some level it will bring a little relief to the pain here, but in truth I don't think it is ever going to go away completely."

Patty McCormick, whose son-in-law, Gerry Scharfenberger, is a former mayor of Middletown, said her reaction to the news late Sunday of Bin Laden was a sudden resurgence of the old anger she felt at the time. "It's better we don't talk about it," the 84-year-old said when approached by a reporter. "The nerve of bringing down those towers. Oh my God. You see, I'm still angry".

Mr Scharfenberger says hearing of Bin Laden's death gave him a "good feeling". He added: "I'm not gong to sugarcoat it. It's good finally triumphing over evil. Then again, I know several of the folks who were killed that day and every week at church I see their kids growing up. That's never going to change."

Among them is Kristen Grazioso whose father's memorial stone she visited on Monday with the balloons. To her there was no doubt that the dispatching of the man who encapsulated all the evil of 9/11 and gave the orders that killed her father was a moment for celebration. "Completely, in every way," she told the local Daily Record newspaper. Indeed she grew up feeling "disgusted" that Bin Laden was still alive and hiding.

"When I found out, I was just so happy. That's what I had been waiting for, for basically 10 years." But even she knows that the pain for her, and the pain Middletown suffered so disproportionately, and for so many other Americans will never be over.

"It's not going to fix what he did, and it's not going to fix everyone," she said.

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