The killing of Osama Bin Laden has reawakened memories of the September 11th attacks for families of the nearly 3,000 victims. After nearly 10 years, those relatives are now grasping with and processing the stunning and bittersweet news.
Patricia Reilly lost her sister, Lorraine Lee, who was on the 101st floor of tower two in the World Trade Center. The only positive identification of her sister that she received was her purse—now in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Reilly said she did find some solace in knowing about bin Laden’s last moments and the daring raid that put the leader of al Qaeda face to face with American forces.
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“I know it sounds strange to be happy somebody’s dead, but I was very happy when I heard it,” Reilly said. “I was really happy to hear that it was American military and intelligence personnel who actually killed him, because I’m really glad that in the last moments of his life he knew he was paying for what he had done with his own life, and the people he killed had finally got justice. I was glad that he knew that in the end.”
Reilly gave birth to a daughter eight years ago whom she named after her sister. And like many parents Sunday night, she had to explain to a frightened child why she was “happy that somebody was dead” telling her, “I’m happy because this is the person who killed Aunt Lorraine and all those other people on September 11th.”
Re-living searing memories of the loss they felt that day is something surviving relatives families are going through as they digest the details of the daring operation just 35 miles outside of Islamabad, Pakistan. All stressed that, despite the killing of bin Laden, Americans cannot become complacent.
“It’s not over,” Reilly said. “I’m very grateful to the military and the intelligence personnel for bringing him to justice—this is a momentous event, but the war on terrorism continues and the American people have to remain vigilant. They can’t think it’s over just because Osama bin Laden is dead.”
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Lee Ielpi lost his 29-year-old son, Jonathan, a New York City firefighter and father to two young boys, when Jonathan ran into the World Trade Center. Ielpi heard the bin Laden news Sunday evening when his wife called him as he headed out to Long Island. He instantly broke down on the train—he says he didn’t know “what to say or do”—and then told other passengers through tears, “We got him.” Ielpi, himself a retired New York City firefighter, said it was a mix of “sad and wonderful news,” and all the memories of September 11th came roaring back.
“You have to sit back and start digesting… All those shadows after all these years, all the things that were in the closet. All the thoughts, ‘What do you do? How do you act? What do you say?’ Well here it is. I’m extremely happy with the outcome, extremely happy. I am so happy our ground forces did this,” said Ielpi, the president of the September 11th Families Association and co-founder of the Tribute WTC Visitors Center.
“I would be cautious that we must not think this is the end or near the end. This is no different than any other horrible, savage cancer. We’ve killed the cancer. Now we just have to be cognizant about all the little cells that may be walking around. The fight isn’t over, but I think it sends a very, very powerful message to these terrorists.”
Debra Burlingame’s brother, Charles “Chic” Burlingame, was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. She said she was “happy” to hear that it was Navy SEALs who took down the world’s most wanted terrorist, because her brother was a Naval Academy graduate. She too was glad to learn it wasn’t a missile that took out bin Laden, but “in the last moments of his life” he knew he was “found by the U.S. military.”
“I’m really glad that in the last moments of his life he knew he was paying for what he had done with his own life.”
“This is the guy that was the spiritual leader. If not the operational commander, certainly the head of the serpent and it’s very important that he was taken down, make no mistake about it, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is a long generational fight,” said Burlingame, who is co-founder of Keep America Safe.
“This was the biggest, baddest, worst terrorist that our generation has known and he was hunted down and destroyed by the U.S. military. That should give al Qaeda some pause. If there is anybody that could elude the military it would be this man. He’s not only got a lot of followers, but he’s fortified with millions of dollars and it didn’t protect him, so that should give them pause.”
Burlingame supports keeping the prison at Guantanamo Bay open, pointing to information obtained years ago through interrogations of Gitmo detainees that may have led to the raid. And she called bin Laden a “coward” for reportedly hiding behind his wife and using her as a shield during the raid, and for being behind the killing of not only adults, but also children on 9/11.
Diane Horning lost her 26-year-old son, Matthew, who had been on the 95th floor of the World Trade Center’s first tower. Like other relatives, she praised President Obama for his success, and the sobriety with which he delivered the message to Americans. But she said she is disturbed by bin Laden’s burial at sea. “I can’t help but think that if indeed he was buried at sea then he was given more respect than my son that was killed, and I find that very distressing—that we’ve never been able to get our nation to bury our dead,” Horning said while choking up. “I don’t understand why my son has been given less respect than the man who killed him. I would like equal respect at the very least.”
Horning founded WTC Families for Proper Burial because she believes her son’s remains and those of many other 9/11 victims were taken to Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, and not properly and respectfully sorted through and buried. She says she has gone to the landfill herself, and found credit cards of victims, as well as keys to World Trade Center offices.
Some family members say the bin Laden slaying does nothing to help with closure or mourning. Monica Iken, who lost her husband, Michael Patrick, said she was glad the Qaeda mastermind has been killed, but added that when it comes to closure, “I don’t give [bin Laden] any of my thought process” and focuses instead on the building of the 9/11 memorial and museum.
But others, such as Reilly’s brother, Thomas Greene, hope the news will help assuage grief. He says his mother still often breaks down into tears when thinking of her daughter, Lorraine.
“At least something has happened to help us with the healing process, but nothing that happened will ever bring her back. The first thing I thought is, this is great, but it doesn’t bring her back. I feel like it’s a good step in trying to get our whole family to finally try and get past this and look into the future,’ Greene said.
But Greene also worries about retaliation by the terrorist network. “Al Qaeda doesn’t do things without thinking them through,” he said. “They plan these things, and it may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, maybe not even a year from now, but they will plan and do something to try and avenge his death. I’m sure of that.”
Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.