Remembering 9/11: Daughter’s Story Untold For 10 Years
By Joseph Orovic
Jillian Suarez doesn’t want to cry.
|The Suarez family in 2001 – Carmen, Ramon and Jillian.
She has spent the better part of a decade holding back tears – and her story, the why’s and how’s that led her Glendale home to fall short one family member.
The truth is, she didn’t know. How could she, at 9 years old? When her father, Ramon Suarez, walked out the door that crisp September morning 10 years ago to work as a cop on Delancey Street, he was supposed to come home.
Jillian didn’t know why her mother Carmen picked her up early on Sept. 11, 2001. She found no reason to panic, playing outside with friends that afternoon as mom awaited nervously inside their home.
“I was a regular 9-year-old kid,” Jillian said. “I cared about playing with my dog.”
Jillian caught a glimpse of Carmen breaking down in tears, trying to shield her daughter from what was going on. Then a friend explained what happened in Lower Manhattan – and as much as her young mind could process, she ran inside, up to her room and prayed. And prayed, “Daddy, come home.” She prayed that the dad who, two days earlier celebrated his daughter’s ninth birthday, would walk in the door as calmly as he walked out.
Ramon stayed alive in the hopeful heart of his wife. He was alive, she had seen him guiding traffic, saving lives over and over again in the file footage television stations played on a loop. He had to come back. Jillian didn’t need to think otherwise.
Three months later, Jillian was reunited with her father one last time; too young to understand what the funeral was about, the enormity of her loss still completely foreign. That would all hit her later.
“I finally understood that dad wasn’t going to come back,” she now said, a brisk, sharp and emotionally astute 19-year-old.
Graduations passed. Celebrations, events, and the more meaningful parts of becoming an adult were short in attendance by one. And every year, 9/11’s anniversary came and went.
“I couldn’t stand the day because my birthday was two days before,” Jillian said. “I would cope with it only on that day. Sometimes I wouldn’t even cry.”
She spent a decade not broaching the subject with her mother. They didn’t talk about it for the same reason they stopped visiting Ground Zero on 9/11. It hurt too much.
Finally, Carmen signed Jillian up for the WNYC Radio Rookies program. The initiative gives teens a mic and the leeway to tell their own stories. This year’s theme was obvious, handing an hour of airtime to the youngest generation to live through 9/11. Carmen thought Jillian would have something to contribute. She was daring her daughter to finally talk about Dad – before a much bigger audience.
“I wasn’t even told about it,” Jillian said. “My mom had planned me into it.”
She was initially hesitant, having spent the better part of a decade telling a different story.
She previously shied away from talking about it when she could. Tough and unwilling to show weakness, Jillian would not make 9/11 her story. So she told friends her dad died of a heart attack.
“I will always be the little girl who was oblivious to everything and always happy no matter what,” she said.
After meeting several times with Radio Rookies Associate Producer Sanda Htyte, Jillian was on board – but with one condition: she would tell her story without crying.
Jillian Suarez today.
“I knew how much emotion and feelings that she has not tapped into,” Htyte said. “It’s also a matter of stripping herself. There’s never a sense of push. It’s always a sense of how you feel.”
The two grew into a mutual trust and together they created a five-and-a-half-minute segment. Emotionally wrenching but empowering, it has been airing on WNYC through to the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Jillian talked with her mother about that day, and their loss, for the first time ever. And taped it. Broadcast it. Shared it.
“Ma, can you tell me the story of what happened on 9/11?” she asks right at the beginning.
Jillian said the whole experience brought out all the things she couldn’t speak about before.
“I finally got the weight off my shoulders,” she said. “For the first time this year, I’m finally going to have a different perspective on everything. Now my friends finally understand.”
Htyte sees a new Jillian.
“It’s a transformation that’s incredibly visible,” she said, noting the difference between the tight-lipped girl she first spoke to and the one who shared a personal audio diary entry with fellow Radio Rookies.
“Before I wouldn’t want to say anything,” Jillian said. “But now I say, ‘My father did that.’ I couldn’t be more proud. He may not be here, but I can honestly say my dad is a hero. I miss him every day.”
The segment is available in its entirety on radiorookies.org and will be broadcast on WNYC at various points with other Radio Rookies’ segments.
Take a listen. Hear the defiant strength in Jillian’s voice. It’s a sensibility and tenacity that has mirrored this City’s for the last 10 years. The willingness to accept and move on, but never forget.
Reach Deputy Editor Joseph Orovic at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 357-7400, Ext. 127.