One Riverhead 9/11 family’s quest to find answers, move on

09/11/2011 10:21 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO Kiesha Washington with her kitchen table full of mementos and cards that were sent to her after her husband died on Septmber 11. One of the books was the New York Times ‘Portraits of 9-11-01′.

It was about 5 a.m. and the Verizon workers had just wrapped up a major infrastructure upgrade inside a wire-filled and windowless control room at the top of the World Trade Center.

Mike DeCamillis, a section manager, reminded Derrick Washington, a senior communications technician whom he supervised, that the two still had to complete a biannual appraisal, which is a performance evaluation.

The pair agreed to meet for the appraisal two days later, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, at 8 a.m. in Mr. Washington’s office on the 110th floor of the south tower.

But plans changed.

“So we’re crossing down the street,” Mr. DeCamillis recalled of that Sept. 9, “and he says, ‘Hey Mike, listen, I know you live pretty far away. If you want to give me my appraisal we can just go upstairs and do it now.’”

They had already worked some nine hours, but the two took that ride back to the top of New York City’s tallest building to do the evaluation, which took about an hour.

That was the last time Mr. DeCamillis ever saw his colleague.

Mr. Washington, a father of three, was killed in the terror attacks that ensued; his remains were identified only through DNA analysis more than three months later.

“I was supposed to be there,” Mr. DeCamillis, also a father of three, said of the morning of Sept. 11 in an interview this week from his home in Hopewell Junction, N.Y.  “He basically saved my life.”

When asked how often he thinks about how he could have died that day, and what Mr. Washington did for him, Mr. DeCamillis broke down.

“Every day of my life I think about it,” he said after a long pause, choking back tears. “The guy saved my life and he died. And I feel very guilty about that. All the time I speak to my children about Derrick. And what a great employee he was and a good guy and a family man and how he always talked about his wife and kids. They were the love of his life.”

SEARCHING FOR DERRICK

Mr. Washington and his wife, Kiesha, had already talked about a plan of action in case terrorists once again took aim at New York’s twin towers, as they had in 1993.

“He and I had talked about an evacuation plan in March of that year, and he said to me that he was going to try to go to the roof,” she recalled. “So I told my entire family, ‘Derrick and I talked about this, and I can tell you right now he was probably not trying to get down. He was going up, thinking they would have been rescued from the top.”

On Sept. 11, shortly after the second plane hit the south tower, Ms. Washington’s sister grabbed her from inside a Suffolk Community College classroom in Northampton, and the women and their mother went racing to Brooklyn by car, to Mr. Washington’s parents’ house.

Along the way, they heard reports that the south tower had collapsed.

“I knew in my mind then, probably, that he was going to be lost because I knew that he was going to the roof,” she said. “He was two, three steps away from there.”

Still, hope was far from lost.

“The central hub [on Sept. 11] was Derrick’s mother’s house in Brooklyn,” Kiesha Washington said. “Everybody knew they had to get to this house, because we needed to know that everybody was safe who worked in the city. So we watched it on the news. We watched people walking across the bridge and we were sitting there trying to see who was walking, but you really couldn’t see.”

The day wore on and more and more friends and relatives streamed into the house.

“I guess by 5 o’clock it was in my mind that he would have been in this house already or trying to get to a phone that was working to call this house,” she continued. “He was definitely a momma’s boy, so this was definitely the house that he was going to go to.”

Her husband never showed. The last the family had heard from Derrick Washington was after the first plane crashed into the north tower, when he and his brother Brandon spoke by phone. Derrick had said the plane missed his tower, and that smoke from the north tower had blackened the sky.

“There’s smoke and everything,” he said on a message that was recorded by an answering machine that day, a tape Ms. Washington has kept ever since in her top dresser drawer.

“I just went to the roof man it’s blacked out like hell; you can’t see sh–,” he continued.

“So get out of there, man,” his brother replied.

“Yea, I’m going to go get my laptop man and I’m going to get out of here,” he said.

“Forget the laptop, just leave man,” the brother said.

“Yeah, I’m booking.”

Kiesha Washington and other family members spent that night — and several days to come — listening to that tape, and driving back and forth to Brooklyn and Manhattan. They called and visited hospitals, filled out a missing person report and kept in touch with the authorities in hope their loved one was alive somewhere, perhaps too badly burned to speak or trapped. Or maybe he had amnesia and forgot who he was. They carried flyers with Derrick’s photographs, his age and a description, and a list of what jewelry he was wearing, which included a wedding band, watch and pinkie ring.

“The whole family would just congregate in the house, just hoping and praying that something would happen,” she said of those days. “We were trying to get some type of information. But of course, nobody knew anything.”

HOPE IS GONE

Derrick and Kiesha Washington had three children together. Christopher was 12 when his dad went missing, Devin was 7 and Malik was just 3 years old.

“They were holding out hope that, like what I said, maybe he’s burnt or maybe he’s bandaged and can’t talk and he doesn’t have identification on him,” Ms. Washington said. “And there was talk about people [in those situations], so they were hoping that maybe, just maybe, that was their dad.”

More than three months went by without their father when Ms. Washington was visited by two detectives at the couple’s apartment at the Calverton Hills complex.

It was exactly a week before Christmas in 2001. And the detectives didn’t know the boys were listening.

“The kids were sitting at the table. They were doing their homework,” Ms. Washington said. “The kids wanted to know of course why two detectives were standing in the house, so they came from the table. The detectives said they had found the remains of Derrick through DNA. The kids heard it when I heard it. So I didn’t get a chance to tell them myself.”

She still regrets that the boys never got to enjoy one last Christmas with hope for their dad still in their hearts. In the weeks prior, the children had not wanted to believe their father could be dead, even when their mother told them two weeks after Sept. 11 that “he probably won’t be coming home. We should start preparing.”

But on that December day, “I think that’s when it clicked to them that it was serious,” she said. “It was a big letdown.”

Malik, now 13 and a Riverhead Middle School student, said last week that he could still remember — even from just 3 years old — a week before Sept. 11, 2001, when his dad took the three boys to his offices where he and another Verizon worker who died, Leonard White, maintained Verizon’s control room for its long distance services.

“I remember that,” he said from the family’s kitchen table on Friday, to his mother’s surprise. “Walking through there. Him showing us around and everything. I remember that.”

“He was right underneath the observation deck,” Ms. Washington said of her husband’s 110th floor setup, which DeCamillis said Mr. Washington and Mr. Leonard were quite proud of.

“And that was the thing, he had the key to get up to the roof and go to the observation deck, and that’s what [Mr. Washington and the boys] did. They were able to see the ocean and the Statue of Liberty.”

The Washington family held a funeral for Derrick in January 2002 in Beech Island, S.C., where much of his family is from and where his parents now live. His remains are buried there.

PHOTO COURTESY OF KIESHA WASHINGTON | Derrick Washington (right) with his mother Lettie Washington and sons Christopher, Devin and Malik outside First Baptist Church in Riverhead.

CHILDREN OF 9/11

Of the three boys, Devin, now 17, who was visiting his father’s parents in South Carolina last week, took their father’s loss the hardest, his mother said. He still keeps in his bedroom a collage of photos of his dad, which was put together for one of a handful of memorials that had been organized in the weeks and months after Sept. 11. Christopher, now 22, who was home last week, did not want to be interviewed.

Ms. Washington said the older boys have both struggled in different ways since losing their father, though she declined to get into specifics.

“I’m torn because I think a topic of what happens to the children of 9/11 is like, a topic in itself,” she said. “Just from them not living the right life or life is not on the right track for them. Or getting into the wrong crowd of friends. Or just not making the right choices.

“I can’t blame it on 9/11, but I think that’s like a whole topic in itself,” she continued. “And I try to look at other people and other [Sept. 11 victims’ families] over the years to see if they went through a similar thing I went through with their children. And I have read some cases where they have, so I said, ‘Wow, I’m not alone in this.’”

Malik said his brothers have never spoken to him about their father, which he doesn’t seem to mind. And despite his mother’s best efforts, he said he thinks the older boys harbour a lot of anger.

Malik said he sometimes thinks about what life would have been like growing up with his dad around.

“I don’t really have any thoughts about him, because I didn’t really know him like that,” he said. “But, yeah, I do think about that sometimes, how things would have changed. I just think about it then move on.”

Ms. Washington said she imagines that for a child, losing a parent to an orchestrated terror attack is much different than if the father walked away from the family, or died of natural causes.

“You go to work one day and you’re expected to be home, and you never come home,” she said.

She has since tried to quell any feelings of anger in her children against Muslims or other people of Middle Eastern descent.

“I try to instill in them that they shouldn’t stereotype a group of people because of the actions of individuals,” she said. “I have told them not everybody is the same. And you wouldn’t want people to stereotype you.”

LOVE AND LOSS

Kiesha first met Derrick Washington during a school field trip. They were at a play at Hofstra University, “Romeo and Juliet.”

Love must have been in the air, because after the show, when Kiesha was 15 and a freshman at Riverhead High School, the 18-year-old senior from Brooklyn with that great, wide smile asked for her phone number.

“We met at the play,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Can I get your number? I’ll call you later.’ And he did, and we’ve been high school sweethearts ever since.”

That was March 10, 1986, and the couple, who married in 1996, celebrated the day every year until Mr. Washington was killed at 33 years of age.

PHOTO COURTESY OF KIESHA WASHINGTON | Brandon Washington visits his brother Derrick’s grave in South Carolina.

Last Friday, she remembered her first husband — she has since remarried — as family-oriented and strong-willed.

“And he didn’t take nothing from no one,” her sister, Tara, who had arrived at the family’s house during the interviews, interjected.

“But he liked to have a good time, though,” Ms. Washington continued. “And, you know, nobody messed with his family.”

He worked in the World Trade Center office from 1994 or 1995, she said.

For her youngest son, she said she’ll answer all his questions and tell funny stories, but she tries not to linger too long on his dad’s memory.

“The other day we were looking at pictures,” she said. “Or if we’re sitting around, we’ll tell stories. I hate to say it, we all loved him, but I don’t want them to be sad. I want them to be happy young men. I want them to know that they still have to grow up and be young men and they have to move on. I’m remarried now.

“One door closes and another door opens,” she later said of her new marriage to a Riverhead school employee. “That’s how life is.”

Still, she said, over the course of 10 years, each Sept. 11 anniversary has been a trying, emotional affair. The boys have always stayed home from school on that day, and the family keeps all the televisions on, not doing much until Derrick Washington’s name is read aloud. A few years ago, she read her late husband’s name with the rest of the Sept. 11 victims’ relatives at ground zero. She’ll do so again on the 10th anniversary this Sunday.

“We believe in God, and that’s the saving grace,” she said. “Even when it happened, I had people coming to our home and just praying with us; that got us through the rough days. My thing is this, we couldn’t see the reason or rhyme then, and we probably can’t now. But there is a reason behind it.

“Maybe some day it will come to light.”

mwhite@timesreview.com

Comments

comments