September 11, 2001: The day my son didn't come home

David Usborne
Saturday 11 September 2004 00:00 BST

"Men are idiots when it comes to grieving." Bob McIlvaine, 59, has a right to make such an assertion. Today marks the third anniversary of the day two jetliners dropped from a blue Manhattan sky and rammed the twin towers, sending them tumbling to the ground. Left in the dust were the mangled and charred bodies of almost 3,000 people.

"Men are idiots when it comes to grieving." Bob McIlvaine, 59, has a right to make such an assertion. Today marks the third anniversary of the day two jetliners dropped from a blue Manhattan sky and rammed the twin towers, sending them tumbling to the ground. Left in the dust were the mangled and charred bodies of almost 3,000 people.

Among them was his son, Bobby. But if he is speaking of himself, he is mistaken. It is not that Mr McIlvaine, a retired counsellor to troubled teenagers and one-time tavern-owner from Philadelphia, has returned to the groove of his old life. He hasn't done that at all. Rather, everything has changed for him - he has different friends, different passions, he has lost his religion. He is still with his wife, but for a while that was touch and go too.

This modestly built man with silver hair and glasses has found his own way to cope and for that no one could call him an idiot. True, he weeps still - he crumbles twice in our conversation - but nowadays he is mostly in charge of his pain, not the other way around. His daily experiences are, by his own choice, not what he could have possibly imagined a few years ago. But that was before 9/11.

On that fateful Tuesday, Mr McIlvaine was at the hospital in suburban Philadelphia where he worked with the teenagers. The TV was on at the nurses' station and shortly after 9am someone burst in and told him that bad things were happening in Manhattan. He left to go home to his wife, Helen, a special education teacher. They weren't overly worried. Bobby, who was 25 - and who only the weekend before had announced plans to become engaged to his girlfriend - did not work in the twin towers.

Not that they could relax entirely. Recently promoted to assistant vice-president in the media division of Merrill Lynch, he had an office in the World Financial Centre, just across the street from the flaming towers. What his parents did not know was that on that day he was involved in setting up a trade show on the 106th floor of the north tower, just four floors below the restaurant Windows on the World.

The worry had become acute by nightfall when Bobby hadn't telephoned. And this was a man who talked to his mother every day, without fail. Their second son, Jeff, three years younger, was determinedly positive. But the next morning there was nothing to do but struggle up to New York and look. On Wednesday, they went from hospital to hospital searching for Bobby. Nothing. It was the next day that word came that was at once terrible and relieving. They had found a body; it might be Bobby.

This is the part of the story that Mr McIlvaine still is unable to tell without faltering. The memory of that moment when the news of your child's death is first brought to you is stored away most of the time. But when someone asks you to talk about it, to describe that excruciating instant, it comes alive again. And still it is too much. What he does know, however, is that his family was one of the lucky ones. They had a body they could take home, mourn over and bury or cremate. That was not the case for the large majority of the 9/11 families, many of whom held burial ceremonies with empty caskets.

But something still haunts this man and he has not been able to let it go. How did Bobby die, exactly? Where was he? He and his wife never saw the body. It was identified, without any question, by dental records. (Bobby had recently had a crown fitted.) They were advised against viewing it at the makeshift morgue that received all the 9/11 remains at that time. And when they got him home to Philadelphia, the undertaker was similarly discouraging. "He said that it was just going to leave a mark on us for the rest of our lives, if we did," he recalls now. What they were told was this: Bobby suffered massive trauma, had post-mortem burns over 90 per cent of his body and was missing his right arm.

Mr McIlvaine is still searching for answers. His theory is that Bobby was struck by flying debris, perhaps a chunk of concrete or a girder. If everyone was telling them the truth about the condition of his body, he surely could not have jumped. To imagine that would almost be too much to bear.

And yet. What if the body was in a far worse state than anyone had let on? That would change a lot. "I don't think the funeral director was lying to me," he offers. If he had viewed Bobby's body, he would know for sure and part of him regrets he did not ignore all that advice, at least to say a final goodbye.

As the weeks and months passed, father and mother found themselves drawn apart rather than brought together. Bob's friends all but vanished. He hardly sees any of his old mates any more except for an occasional round of golf with them when 9/11 is never mentioned. Helen, however, was surrounded by her old friends who became a constant support network. Hence, more than anything else, the "men are idiots" remark. If it was not aimed at himself, it was definitely aimed at those that used to be his buddies. "Helen had everyone around her, talking to her. Men don't do that. My friends never came around."

But there was more to the tension at home in those first years. The second year, he says, was even worse than the first. Eventually, Bob and Helen sought help from a psychologist. "I think that if we hadn't seen the psychologist, we probably would have gotten divorced," Mr McIlvaine concedes now.

For one, there was the journal episode. A few days after 9/11, the family returned to New York to clear out Bobby's apartment. The almost-fiancée, Jen, was there too and asked to keep one of Bobby's diaries. Bob saw no harm. Only later did Helen discover that it was the last one their son had kept. She wanted to see it. Jen said she needed time to think about it. Then three months later, she flatly turned Bob down when he asked her for the loan of the journal again. Helen was livid - with Jen and her husband. From the look in her eyes that day, "I think she was ready to divorce me right there," recalls Bob.

An encounter between Bob and their local priest didn't help much either. They were standing outside church soon after Bobby died when the priest said, "Don't worry, because peace will triumph against evil." The remark stuck in Bob's craw. What did he mean "evil"? "I got really angry. I said to him, 'Who are the evil people?'" From that moment on, he stopped going to church - he is a Catholic - and has not returned since. Calling the hijackers "evil" wasn't good enough for him. "I didn't want to know who was evil. I wanted to know why they were doing evil things." And this is where the more fundamental rift between father and mother, though both equally bereaved, began to show. Bob began to take exception to the reaction that almost everyone else - and the government especially - had after 9/11. By his own admission, he drew more and more angry. He was opposed to the invasion of Afghanistan and the war against the Taliban. In other words, revenge did not interest him. "I just didn't see what it would achieve," he says now.

Most troubling for his wife, however, was his quick determination that all was not as it seemed. How come the photographs of all 19 hijackers were in the newspapers the day after the jets struck? He theorised that the government had known the attacks were coming and had said nothing. It is a belief that, he says, was compounded for him by the findings of the recent congressional investigation into the attacks. "I honestly believe that they knew it was coming." But whenever he raised this at home, Helen would shut him down.

"She would just break down at the thought. It was too much. In fact, no one wanted to listen to me at the time and she would have none of it."

In early 2003 something happened, which at the time was bad news, but now Mr McIlvaine is glad of it. He was laid off. By then, he was filled with frustration about Afghanistan, about what he saw as the cover-up and the coming war in Iraq. "I wanted to grab people and convince them that this world is not what it is supposed to be." And so, with time on his hands, he did what so many other families of 9/11 victims had done - he got involved, by joining a peace advocacy group called September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. And by then, Helen was with him and supported him fully.

That was a good thing, because the following month, he agreed to join a group travelling to Washington DC to protest at the impending invasion of Iraq. They stood outside the White House and chanted for peace. The night before he had made a startling decision - he would get himself arrested. "It was very nerve-racking. It was tough, because I had never been arrested before."

When the time came, he simply asked police officers in the cordon to break arms and allow him through. He said that he would go with them quietly afterwards. Which is what happened. They took away his protest sign, with pictures of his son stapled on to it. One officer took the pictures off and placed them in Mr McIlvaine's top pocket.

More recently, he has been part of a project called Stonewalk. For the past several months, volunteers, including several who lost sons, daughters or spouses in 9/11, have been pulling a large wooden cart throughout New England that carries a massive granite tombstone with the words "Unknown Civilians Killed in War" engraved upon it. The hope was to have it erected in the Arlington National Cemetery, but the group was turned down. Mr McIlvaine was part of a team hauling it up the East Side of Manhattan and pausing to join afternoon prayers at the 96th Street Mosque, when he met with The Independent.

Being inside a mosque is something else he would never have done, but for Bobby's death. And, as you would guess by now, any animosity against Muslims could not be further from this man's mind. Last month, he helped to drag the half-ton tombstone for three days through the hilly country of northern Connecticut.

The pulling - and all that he is now doing to advocate peace - is doing him more good than he could have imagined. Especially when it brings physical hardship, as it most definitely did when he was at the cart's wooden yoke in Connecticut. "It was probably the best thing that has happened to me since Bobby died. The pain was so severe sometimes that honestly it was cleansing."

The word catharsis is not one he likes, he says, but that is what he is experiencing right now. And it does not stop with Stonewalk.

On the Sunday before the Republican Convention he joined the mega-march through New York City to protest against the Iraq war and George Bush. "What hurts me so much is that he is taking credit for being a war president," he says. "People need to see that he failed this country miserably."

The day after tomorrow, for the first time, he will be part of the commemoration ceremony at Ground Zero, taking his turn to read the names of the dead.

Whenever Mr McIlvaine is out to work for peace, he wears the red Princeton cap that used to belong to his son. He has pinned two badges to either side of it. One is a peace sign with the twin towers superimposed on it. The other is a photograph of Bobby. "You know, he was a shining light and the world was his oyster," he explains, his eyes once more starting to moisten.

And Bobby, he goes on, is with him today, as he pulls the stone, and was with him on the march in Manhattan, just as he is at his side every day. "I really believe he is a force and he is with me. There had to be a reason he was murdered. Maybe I'm the reason."

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