September 11 Means Quiet Reflection for Geist Resident
On September 11, when the nation pauses to remember the lives lost nine years ago in New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania as a result of terrorist attacks, Joe Damush will not be at work. Although his fitness and wellness club, Geist Fitness, will be open for business as usual, Damush and his wife and co-owner, Teresa, will spend the day in reflection. They will quietly honor the memory of his sister, Pamela Gaff, who perished in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on that fateful day.
Damush and his wife were scheduled to travel up to Chicago that day in 2001 to meet up with Gaff, and to help celebrate her birthday, which was Sept. 10. It was also Gaff’s 30th wedding anniversary. But Gaff, who was a Senior Vice President for Aon Corporation, couldn’t make the trip. A dedicated professional, she had paperwork to attend to in the Aon offices, located in the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.
“When the first plane hit the North Tower on that day, I immediately tried to call Pam,” says Damush. But he couldn’t get through. He would later find out that Gaff, who had helped evacuate her staff and was attending to final responsibilities before leaving the building, was talking to their father when she saw the second plane coming straight toward the South Tower.
“My father was on the phone with her at the time the plane hit,” Damush recalls. Gaff was on the 102nd floor, and the plane made impact within the ten floors below. “My dad is an Army veteran, and was in the Special Forces, so he’s a pretty tough character. But he heard her voice as the plane approached and then hit the building … that experience stays with him today,” he says.
Flights were immediately grounded across the country, so Damush and his wife jumped in their car and drove to New Jersey, where a brother and extended family resides. Pam was the oldest of five children in the Damush family, and also lived in Princeton, New Jersey, along with her husband.
Once arriving in New Jersey, Damush and his family waited for word of any survivors. “We basically waited for direction from the Red Cross to see what we could do or what we could find out,” explains Damush. “After a few days, two of us were asked to go to Ground Zero to give DNA for identification purposes. Since I was the oldest after Pam, I went in with my mom to give samples,” he says.
While the reality of the situation continued to stun the nation, Damush and his family remained in a state of shock. “We were a strong family unit before the tragedy, so we were there for each other as best we could be,” Damush says.
As the clean up efforts began throughout the upcoming days, the siblings and spouses returned to their respective homes, and hoped that they would at least hear news of Pam’s remains being found. But as the world would soon learn, there was very little to be identified.
“I think that was one of the hardest things about it,” says Damush, referring to the fruitless recovery efforts taking place. “We waited for months to see if any workers found anything, but there just wasn’t anything to be found,” he says.
The Damush family purchased a headstone and a plaque for Gaff that is now located in Princeton, and they all make an annual pilgrimage to the site to honor her memory and remember the good things about their sister, daughter and friend.
“We were raised in a strong Catholic family,” says Damush. “And faith has a lot to do with how you deal with things.
“There were a lot of people that didn’t understand why we weren’t really angry,” Damush says. “But there are bad people everywhere and there are great people everywhere. Countries all over the world lost people in both towers … it wasn’t just Americans that were affected. There is a myriad of cultures and people who suffered. You can’t put the blame on a group, and it’s important for my family to keep that in perspective. And we do,” he says.
Damush has also dedicated a wall within the Geist Fitness building, which serves to honor her life through a mural. “At first, when people would come into the club and ask me about the wall and about Pam, it was a little tough,” says Damush. “But now it helps me to talk about it a little, and to positively remember her even more,” he says.
Damush also takes comfort in the continued strength of his family and the outpouring of support from strangers. One incident, in particular, made a big impact on his family.
“About a year after the attacks, my mother was contacted by a woman in Australia that she had never met,” says Damush. “She had somehow gotten our name, and wanted to find out personal things about Pam,” he says. The reason? A massive quilt was being created, made up of individual squares that represented each person lost on 9/11. The final quilt was sent to the United States and was in a traveling display throughout the country.
“I also really appreciate and empathize with the police officers and other officials who had to clean up and see Ground Zero day after day,” Damush says. “We need to recognize how special those people really are. The event affected so many layers of people, and as time goes by we need to continue to recognize how many people the event touched … hopefully everyone will remember the tragedy it was and still is,” he says.
So after nine years, are there any lessons learned for the Damush family, who has dealt with so much heartache and felt such great loss?
“We recognize that we are all on this earth a very short time, and it can be cut shorter,” says Damush. “Don’t live angry, don’t live with grudges, and try to be the best person you can be,” he says.
As for his lost sister, Pamela Graff, his family continues to honor her every year. “We all vow to do what we need to do to remember my sister, to honor the relationship we all had with her, and to share it so she’s not forgotten” he says.