By Jennifer Peltz
On 9/11, Stephen Feuerman saw the World Trade Center aflame through the window of his Empire State Building office and watched, transfixed, as a second fireball burst from the twin towers.
He ran through the 78th floor urging everyone to get out, thinking their skyscraper could be next. With transit hubs shut down, he couldn’t get home to his family in suburban Westchester for hours. Among the dead were someone he knew from college and people he recognized from his commuter train.
Feuerman had always seen himself as a New Yorker, but “everything changed that day,” he says.
Shaken by the experience, the apparel broker and his wife put their home on the market weeks later. Within four months, they and their two small children moved to a gracious South Florida suburb they figured would be safer than New York.
So it was until this past Valentine’s Day, when mass violence tore into Parkland, Florida, too.
“There really is no safe place,” says Feuerman, whose children survived but lost friends in the massacre that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks prompted the Feuermans and an uncounted number of others to quietly move away from their lives near the hijacked-plane strikes that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
Some sought a place where they could feel safe. Some placed a new importance on living near family. Others simply re-evaluated what they wanted from life.
As the attacks’ 17th anniversary approaches, The Associated Press caught up with several people who left and asked: Have they found what they were looking for?
“It really made us have a wake-up call.”
About 30 weeks a year, Scott Dacey drives from his home near New Bern, North Carolina, to Washington for a few days. The 350-mile trips are a price the federal lobbyist pays for peace of mind after Sept. 11.
He and his wife, Jennifer, were rooted in Washington before the attacks. He was a former federal official lobbying on Native American and gaming issues. She’d grown up nearby, though her parents had moved to North Carolina.
Then came the strike on the Pentagon, the paralyzing feeling of not knowing what might happen next, the weeks of watching military aircraft patrol around their suburban Virginia home.“It really made us have a wake-up call: ‘How do we want to live our lives?'” Scott says. “Do we want to be up here in this rat race of Washington, D.C.? Or raising kids somewhere that didn’t feel so on-guard, somewhere closer to family in times of crisis?”
The choice wasn’t simple, particularly for a lobbyist. The couple’s 2002 move to the New Bern suburb of Trent Woods meant extra costs, including a Washington apartment and a then-advanced phone system to make sure Scott wouldn’t miss clients’ calls to his office there. Jennifer, already a lawyer, had to take a second bar exam in North Carolina.
Friends suggested the Daceys were overreacting. And it was an adjustment, going from career-focused, on-the-go Washington to the gentler pace of eastern North Carolina.
But it also opened unexpected opportunities. Scott is a county commissioner and ran for Congress; a Republican, he never considered seeking office in Democratic-leaning northern Virginia. Jennifer is a community college trustee and serves on other local boards.
And their children, 17 and 15, grew up in a town repeatedly ranked among the state’s safest.
“It would not be for everybody, but for us, it’s been the right fit,” Jennifer says. “We’re outside the bubble, and this is how America really lives.”
“You’re only going to change your life when things are bad.”
Michael Koveleski isn’t afraid of taking risks. His Christian faith gives him confidence he’ll be OK if he does what’s right, and he’s a motivational-book reader who thrives on “tenacious optimism.”
He needed plenty of it after he and his wife, Margery, left New York in the wake of 9/11 with four children and no work lined up.
New York and church had brought the couple together in the 1980s: she a Haitian-American from Brooklyn, he a white art student from Massachusetts. By 2001, he was a furniture designer for a platform-bed shop, she a mom and frequent school volunteer. They had a small house and a full life.
After 9/11, though, Michael sensed emotional burnout surrounding him at his lower Manhattan workplace, while security measures lengthened his commute from Queens and devoured his time with the children. Two months later, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed near the Koveleskis’ home, killing 265 people. There had to be a better way to live, the couple thought.
The next spring they moved to Springfield, Ohio, where they had church friends.
If a better way, it wasn’t always smooth. It was initially a challenge for the Koveleskis’ children to be the new, mixed-race kids in an area less diverse than Queens. And Michael struggled to find work in the shaky post-9/11 economy. A man who’d adhered to healthy eating, he found himself grateful for $5 pizzas that could feed the family, which now includes five children. It took eight years or so before he made what he had in New York.
But when he did, he made it at his own business, Design Sleep, a shop selling natural latex mattresses and platform beds. His wife and older children sometimes help out at the shop, which has quadrupled in size during its 14 years.
“You’re only going to change your life when things are bad — or terrible,” Michael says. “Our thing was 9/11, starting over with nothing. … I am thrilled at the way it came out to be.”
“This is the place I had the dream to come to.”
Georgios Takos rides through northern Wyoming in his Greek-food truck with a souvenir New York license plate on the wall, a reminder of the place he once thought would bring his American dream to life.
Growing up in Greece, Takos longed to live in the America he saw in movies, the America where everyone wanted to go. He was elated when he arrived in New York City in 1986.
There were tears in his eyes as he left 15 years later, days after 9/11 shattered his sense of safety and his impression of his adopted hometown.
“This wasn’t the America I remember when watching those John Wayne movies back home … the place it was when I first arrived,” he thought.
He headed for restaurant work in Arizona, then California, where he met his wife, Karine, a teacher. She persuaded him one summer to visit her home state of Montana.
There, and now in the couple’s new hometown of Powell, Wyoming, he found the America he’d imagined — the wide-open West, the feeling of freedom.
As Takos launched his food truck, the Greek Station, Westerners largely embraced “the New York Greek guy.” And Takos embraced Wyoming — “the real America,” he says, where he finds life less rushed and people more caring.
“This is the place I had the dream to come to 40 years ago,” he says.
“We try to echo some of what we loved.”
Heather and Tom LaGarde loved New York and didn’t want to leave, even after she watched the twin towers burn from their rooftop.
They felt at home living on Manhattan’s then gritty-artsy Lower East Side. She worked at a human rights organization and he, a former player with the Denver Nuggets and other NBA teams, ditched a Wall Street job to found a roller basketball program for neighborhood kids.
So at first, the ramshackle North Carolina farm they spotted online in 2002 was only an occasional getaway. They’d started to want one after worrying about their 1-year-old daughter’s health in the 9/11 smoke. They had no intention of moving back to North Carolina, where Heather had grown up and her 6-foot-10-inch (2.1-meter) husband had been a UNC basketball star.
But over time, “we were very unmoored by 9/11,” Heather says. “Even though I wasn’t physically harmed, just to see it that close changes your perspective. … Your priorities change.”
So in 2004 the LaGardes moved into their farm near small-town Saxapahaw with two children, a few months’ consulting work for Heather and no more of a plan than to keep their eyes open.
One day they saw someone tearing down a nearby barn. That led to starting an architectural salvage company, which led to starting a popular free music series and farmers’ market at an old mill that was being renovated. Which led to starting the Haw River Ballroom, a music venue in a mill building, and founding a humanitarian innovation conference held in the ballroom.
“We try to echo some of what we loved” in New York, Heather says, “but living in an easier, simpler, more natural place.”
“This could have happened anywhere.”
Fresh from dropping off his 16-year-old daughter last month for the first day of her junior year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Stephen Feuerman still thinks his family made a good move after 9/11.
He’s sensitive to what his daughter and 18-year-old son, now a college freshman, have been through. But he also appreciates the community where they got to grow up.
“We’ve had a good life here,” he says. “And again, this could have happened anywhere.”
In fact, he appreciates Parkland all the more since the tragedy. It introduced him to neighbors he’d never met and plunged him into a whirlwind of events and advocacy on gun laws and other issues. He marvels at the support that has poured into his hometown, and he’s proud of its residents’ activism.
The Feuermans have no plans to move again.