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Echoing voices of erased lives

Saturday, September 22, 2001

There are ghosts in my phone just now. A woman's voice explains that Ian and Christine can't take my call. Please leave a message.

Christine Snyder, 32, went down on United Airlines Flight 93. Passengers fought their hijackers to the death, which came at 300 mph on a hillside in Somerset County. The message on her machine in Kailua, Hawaii, has not changed. Only reality.

It is jarring. At what is now Jack Grandcolas' home in San Rafael, Calif., the voice fairly beams: "Hi! Lauren and Jack aren't available. Leave us a message. Thanks!" Lauren Grandcolas is somewhere on that scorched hill. Her voice is still at home.

At a home near Philadelphia, a man's voice apologizes: "I'm sorry, no one's available to take your call, but leave your number and we'll be sure to get back to you." Would that he could. Louis Nacke is dead.

Later in the day, I dial Christine Snyder's number again, wanting to remember her precise words, to transcribe them before they are lost. What possessed me to do this, I do not know. A man, his voice the flat glottal of the Hawaiian Islands, answers.

"I'm Ian," he says.

He tells this story: Christine Snyder moved to Hawaii as a youngster when her father relocated there. Ian and Christine were friends through their senior year of high school, drifted on their own paths, then got together eight years ago and discovered their friendship was love.

She spent her adult life as an arborist and is remembered for her efforts to save a 100-year-old banyan tree. She was in Washington for an urban forestry conference and slipped over to New York to visit the skyscraper forest. She was on her way home when she died.

"We got married on June 2. So, y'know, it kind of hurts."

I tell him I understand but, really, I do not. There is no comprehending what it felt like when, in the early hours of Sept. 11 -- the sun had not yet reached our westernmost victim's family -- a stranger called to tell Ian his wife had been on a hijacked airplane and that the airplane had crashed.

He fended off a barrage of calls. The answering machine, with Christine's voice still cheerily inviting messages, filled with all manner of requests for a call back.

The problem is that Ian Pescaia doesn't know what to say. To ask him how he is doing is ridiculous, because he doesn't know yet. While the rest of the country was talking about how hard to hit back, Pescaia was trying to decide whether he even knows what he wants done on his behalf.

"I thought I did -- now I don't. It's senseless and, I dunno, I'd like to see something done, but I mean -- what's the point?"

A young man whose island marriage is now broken across a field in Somerset County is waiting to see what he feels and, whatever it turns out to be, it cannot possibly be a surprise. He has been thrown a question to which any conceivable answer is understandable.

"To tell you the truth, I don't care what's going on. My life has changed and for what, I don't know," he says.

For now, he is on autopilot. His wife's voice still answers what is now his telephone alone. Even that is not intentional.

"I haven't had a chance to go get another tape," he says. "It's just the only tape. And I didn't want to erase it."

That much, each of us understands.

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