The things they kept: 9/11 survivors and family members open up about the mementos that helped them heal

Yelena "Helen" Belilovsky's World Trade Center ID card, overlaid with a hologram of the Twin Towers. (Courtesy Eugene Belilovsky)

NEW YORK — It could be something as small and simple as a pillow. An ID card. A suit. A chunk of concrete. For those who’ve lost someone or experienced trauma, such objects of memory can often be sources of hope and healing.

For the survivors and family members of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, this is especially true. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum, which opened to the public in 2014, has a collection of over 11,000 artifacts collected from Ground Zero, donated by survivors and by loved ones of the victims.

But there are, of course, plenty of things that never made it to the museum.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Yahoo News spoke with survivors and children of parents who died that day about what they have preserved to remember those who were lost, and asked them to photograph the objects. Yahoo’s immersive storytelling team has used a process called photogrammetry to convert those photos into 3D models you can explore in this story.

These are the things they kept.

Click and drag to explore the 9/11 memorial.

The pillow

Jon Lynch vividly remembers the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He was 13 and in middle school, in his seventh-grade art class in Allentown, Pa., when a teacher from another class ran into the room and told his teacher to turn on the television.

A plane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Jon knew his father, 44-year-old Robert Henry Lynch, worked in one of the Twin Towers, but he assumed his father was fine.

“He’s probably not even there,” Jon thought.

Then the class watched as a second plane hit the South Tower. Jon started to worry. He raised his hand and told the teacher his father worked there.

“Well … I hope he’s OK,” the teacher replied.

Around noon, Jon was called into the main office. His mom was on the phone. She told Jon that his dad, who had remarried and lived in New Jersey, had called their house.

“Everything’s fine, he’s out of the buildings,” Jon’s mom told him. “He said he loved us and he’s going to call us back.”

That was the last time anyone heard from Jon’s dad.

Jon’s mom picked him up from middle school and his sister from college and drove to his father’s house in New Jersey. On the way, they were pulled over for speeding.

“There was not a car on the road,” Jon recalled. “My mom yelled at the officer, ‘Their dad was in the towers!’”

The officer froze and said, “Go.”

They soon made it to Robert’s house, where the entire family (“aunts, uncles, cousins, you name it”) was waiting by the phone. The call never came.

They later learned that Robert — one of the World Trade Center’s 14 property managers — ran back into the buildings to try to help evacuate them.

[Related: Remembering to remember the World Trade Center]

Several years later, Jon and his family were invited by President George W. Bush to the White House, where his father was given a posthumous Congressional Medal of Valor, which was awarded to fallen firefighters and first responders — and to his dad. The medal is kept at his father’s house in New Jersey.

There’s also a business card holder emblazoned with the World Trade Center logo, which Jon found while he was cleaning out his basement.

But it’s a star-shaped, hand-stitched pillow — which Jon and his siblings made at a camp for kids whose parents died on 9/11 — that they hold most dear.

It’s made of fabric from shirts his father wore.

“It’s something we keep,” Jon said, before pausing at one of the swatches. “I remember this shirt very vividly. These shirts mean something to me.”

Jon’s wife, Payton, recently published a book (“Rise From the Ashes: Stories of Trauma, Resilience, and Growth From the Children of 9/11”) that focuses in part on the use of memory objects in his healing.

A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to Tuesday’s Children, the nonprofit founded in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, with the specific mission of helping the 3,051 children who lost a parent on 9/11.

Click and drag to explore Jon’s pillow. Click the *arrows symbol* to enlarge the experience and the *audio icon* to hear Jon talk about his father.

The ID

Eugene Belilovsky was also in middle school on Sept. 11, 2001. His mother, Yelena Belilovsky, worked on the 93rd floor of the North Tower. A former librarian who had emigrated to the United States from Ukraine, Yelena had recently been promoted to assistant vice president at a Wall Street investment management firm.

That morning, the teachers at Eugene’s school in Mamaroneck, N.Y., interrupted classes to tell students that something had happened at the Twin Towers. They just weren’t sure what.

There was a radio on in the school’s gymnasium, where some of Eugene’s classmates had gathered to get more information.

“I started to get pretty concerned, because I knew my mom worked pretty high up,” he said.

It wasn’t until he got to his grandparents’ house after school that he learned that his mother was, in fact, missing.

[Also read: The babies born on 9/11 are about to turn 20]

In the days following the attacks, his family held out hope that Yelena would be found alive.

As the days turned to weeks, their hopes faded. Her body was recovered months later.

So was her work ID card, faded and covered in scratches.

“It’s still somewhat legible, but as you can imagine, it was badly damaged,” Eugene said. “I’m surprised it didn’t melt.”

The ID bears Yelena’s Americanized first name, Helen. The security hologram overlaying the ID is an illustration of the Twin Towers.

That it was with Eugene’s mother at the time of her death is not lost on him.

“It’s a nice memory,” he said.

The card was initially given to Eugene’s father. His grandmother recently asked if she could hold onto it while she’s alive.

Like Jon, Eugene was supported by Tuesday’s Children, the nonprofit founded with the specific mission of helping children who lost a parent on 9/11. Over the years, Eugene worked with a mentor who helped him with career counseling.

Eugene is now a mental health counselor, a profession he’s not sure he would have pursued were it not for his experience of losing his mother.

“It’s hard to say,” he said, “but I think there’s probably something there that contributed to it.”

Click and drag to explore Yelena’s ID card. Click the *arrows symbol* to enlarge the experience and the *audio icon* to hear Eugene remember his mother.

The suit

Maria Malone-Hodges was on the platform in Hoboken, N.J., in a gray suit and sandals, waiting for the PATH train to take to her office at the Port Authority on the 64th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Her feet were killing her, and she wanted a seat, so she let the first few packed trains go by until an empty one arrived. She figured she’d still make it to work on time, at worst be a little late.

As she exited the PATH train underneath the World Trade Center, people were running and screaming. A plane had struck the North Tower.

“Stuff was pouring on us,” Maria said. “I looked up. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I can't believe this.’ People were getting hit with debris.”

She took refuge in St. Peter’s Church, which would later be used as a staging ground for rescue and recovery operations.

Then the second plane hit the South Tower. The church shook. “It was, like, shrieking. Metal on metal,” she said. (It was later determined that a portion of the landing gear from one of the planes had struck and damaged the roof of the church.)

Maria left the church and tried calling her bosses, who were in Boston at a conference. Cellphones didn’t work, because the attacks had knocked out the cell towers on top of the World Trade Center, so she used her BlackBerry to reach them. They told her she was their ears and eyes on the ground, and to get as much information as she could about her co-workers who might have been trapped in the building.

She zigzagged across the city, first to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown, and then back downtown, where she watched the North Tower collapse.

“I knew exactly what I was looking at, but I couldn’t process it,” Maria said.

She eventually returned home to Hoboken with a Port Authority escort, through the Holland Tunnel. There were 97 messages on her answering machine. Her suit was covered in soot, or “schmutz,” as she called it. She took it to the dry cleaners.

The Port Authority lost 84 employees on 9/11.

Maria said she attended at least 40 funerals in the months that followed, sometimes two a day.

On the first anniversary of the attacks, she attended a memorial service in Manhattan. She wore the suit she'd worn on 9/11. All the people she was sitting next to were wearing the same clothes they'd had on that day too.

“Eight of us sitting there, unbeknownst to each other, we all had the same clothes on,” Maria said. “Someone said, ‘Oh, this is what I had on.’ Then someone else said, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I had on, too.’”

Click and drag to explore Maria’s suit. Click the *arrows symbol* to enlarge the experience and the *audio icon* to hear Maria discuss her experience that day.

The concrete

Lou Venech was in his office at the Port Authority on the 61st floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, when he heard a loud whoosh, followed by a rumble. The building shook.

“It wasn’t immediately clear what had happened,” Lou recalled.

Looking outside, he could see debris falling past the windows.

“There was a kind of blizzard of papers that were raining down from the upper floors,” he said.

Lou and two of his colleagues went into the main corridor near the stairs. There was water coming down through the ceiling. The lights were dimmer than usual.

They went back into the office and learned that a plane had struck the North Tower. The phones were still working, and Lou called his wife, who worked in Union Square, to let her know he was OK and would be leaving.

But he didn’t leave right away. Lou made his way up to the 68th floor, housing the Port Authority’s media relations department, where he used to work. The staff was debating whether they should stay or leave, and a security guard who stopped on the floor urged everyone to evacuate.

As they made their way down the stairs from the 68th floor, there was a loud, rumbling cloud of dust that went through the stairwell to the point where it was difficult to see. They learned later that it was the South Tower collapsing.

When they got outside, there were first responders everywhere.

“I remember telling one of my colleagues to, you know, look up, because we could see the flames on our building,” Lou recalled. “We didn’t notice that the other building was gone. And we realized later that it wasn’t part of our view.”

About 10 minutes later, as they made their way up Church Street, they heard another loud rumble and turned around to see another debris cloud. Their building had collapsed, too.

Lou eventually made his way to the Port Authority offices in Jersey City, where people were going through employee lists to locate survivors.

He said he probably knew a third of the 84 Port Authority workers who perished that day.

At his home in Queens, he’s kept a few mementos from working in the World Trade Center — photos, publications, a set of keys. (For years, Lou kept the dust-laden shoes he wore on 9/11, but he threw them away several years ago.)

But the most unusual thing he kept sits on a bookshelf: a cylindrical piece of core building material from One World Trade Center, taken years before the attacks.

“When technicians would come to install cables or do other work that involves laying things under the floor, they would drill out a small core like this,” Lou said. “They typically just got thrown away, but some of us would pick them up. And I happened to have this one at home.”

Click and drag to explore Lou’s core sample. Click the *arrows symbol* to enlarge the experience and the *audio icon* to hear recount the attacks.


Immersive experience by Tim Chaffee, Laura Hertzfeld, Guenever Goik, Neelima Putcha, Christina Douk and Sonny Cirasuolo