Wendy and Alan Feinberg were married on March 26, 1978. They were married 23 years, and had a daughter, Tara and a son, Michael. In 2001, Wendy was a kindergarten teacher and Alan a New York City firefighter, Tara was in college and Michael in high school. Alan was new to Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9. He loved his job, and he loved being a father. He was a positive, energetic man who was always involved in his children’s activities. On Sept. 11, 2001, Alan was the Battalion Chief Aide, working directly under the Battalion Chief of Battalion 9.
On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, shortly after 8:46 am, Wendy was in her classroom when a coworker said, “You have to see this”, and drew her attention to a fire at the World Trade Center, where a plane had just crashed into the North Tower. Because Wendy was used to Alan going to work every day and fighting fires, she had no reason to think Sept. 11 would be any different, therefore she wasn’t alarmed at first. But then at 9:03 am, another airplane hit the South Tower, and it too was on fire. When Tower 2 (the South Tower) collapsed at 9:59am, followed by the Tower 1 (the North Tower) at 10:28am, there was sheer panic in New York City and around the country, as it became apparent that the United States had been attacked.
Later that day, when Alan didn’t come home or call, Wendy didn’t allow herself to think that he could have been in one of those buildings. Although she saw herself as a strong woman, on that day and for years afterward she felt “numb”, unaware of the depth of her fear, grief, and shock. She went on caring for her children, and holding out hope that she might get some information about Alan.
Author’s note: Sometimes when people experience a traumatic situation, one so awful that the feelings are overwhelming, the mind protects itself by a process called dissociation. The mind cuts the person off from the overwhelming feelings, so that the they can function. The feelings are present in the subconscious, where the person doesn’t experience them directly. The feelings often, but not always, re-emerge at a later time, often years after the event. This is what happened to Wendy.
As the day went on and she couldn’t reach the firehouse by phone, she became more worried, but it still didn’t seem real to her. She couldn’t hide the situation from her son and daughter, so they talked about it. Tara was in college in Florida, and Wendy wanted her to come home immediately, but all air traffic was at a standstill. She was so worried that she didn’t sleep at all that night. The family just waited for news, any kind of news that would reassure them that Alan was all right... but it didn’t come.
Finally on Wednesday morning she got through to the firehouse, and was informed that Alan had indeed been in one of the Towers, Tower 2, the one that fell first. They were searching for survivors, hoping to find some in an air pocket in the wreckage, but 343 firefighters were presumed dead. Wendy again couldn’t sleep that night, and kept trying to get information, but still no word of Alan. The firefighters of Alan’s battalion were considered missing.
She was asked to give a DNA sample, and the Red Cross had intake people meet with families of the missing. “We were all running on adrenaline.” Since the Feinbergs were Jewish, it was traditional that family and friends come right away to “sit Shiva”, or mourn with the family, and that the deceased be buried as soon as possible. So family and friends came and tried to be helpful, although there was no body to bury, no funeral, and no relics or evidence to indicate that Alan was indeed dead. There was also no closure for the families of the missing. Wendy put up a strong front, but couldn’t comprehend the enormity of what had happened. She knew that planes had crashed and buildings had fallen, but didn’t accept that Alan might be dead, because some other people now knew where their loved ones were. She tried to pretend she was in control.
Three days after Sept. 11 she was sitting outside, and she heard two birds cackling at one another, like one was leaving and didn’t want to go, and suddenly she felt something from her head to her toes, she felt it in her heart, and it hit her. She knew that Alan was dead. It was a spiritual experience that she was never to forget.
Thursday the 15th was Rosh Hoshanna, the beginning of the Jewish holidays. By then she had found out that of the 15 firefighters who went with Alan, none of them had come back. She saw 14 flags on someone’s lawn in Marlborough Township, where she lived. Since Alan had been relatively new to his firehouse, she didn’t really have a connection with the other families of the firefighters. Wendy didn’t have any affiliation with a temple, so her father put her in touch with a rabbi he knew, who happened to be the rabbi for the FDNY. Three of the missing firefighters had been Jewish. The FDNY planned a memorial for the firefighters on Sept. 25, even though there were no death certificates as yet. The Mayor and the Fire Chief spoke, there was a color guard, and it was very moving, but Wendy was in a fog, a “bubble”, as she calls it, and continued to be a good actress for the sake of her children.
For more information on Alan Feinberg, see his obituary from the New Jersey paper, the Star Ledger:
Feeling isolated, Wendy called the Township and asked for the phone numbers of other family members of the lost and missing, because she wanted to form a support group. And so the group was formed, with Wendy in a leadership position, but there were no other firefighters’ widows in the group. Some of the people were younger than she, and their spouses had been working in the Twin Towers when they fell. One of the young women was 7 months pregnant, and when Wendy saw her, everything changed. She knew that she wanted to help other survivors of the missing.
The group called themselves “The Surviving Sisters,” and they stayed together for quite some time, but Wendy felt different even in the group. The news coverage alienated her, as they called the missing either “victims” or “heros”. She thought to herself, Alan went in there of his own free will. He went up Tower Two with his group with no hesitation. He was a hero. She never knew if he rescued anyone, there was never a trace of him, but he was a hero.
For the whole first year there was no victims’ compensation fund for the families, but she was fortunate to have life insurance, so she was able to afford to live, although she hadn’t returned to work since that fateful day. Some of the members of the support group had received compensation checks, but not the firefighters’ widows. Compensation didn’t come for over a year, and so Wendy felt that her husband didn’t receive recognition.
Wendy didn’t sleep through the night for a full year after Sept. 11. She started putting together a book of people’s stories about that day, and eventually bound it together. Although she never finished it, she realized that it was exactly what she needed at the time, and it helped her shed some tears by sharing in their experience. It was a part of her own grieving and healing.
In October of 2001, the support group decided to go together to see a medium, although Wendy didn’t buy into it. But she humored the group and piled into the van with them. After they arrived, they sat around a large room with the medium, and immediately the medium pointed directly at Wendy. She said, “There is a fireman right behind your right shoulder, and he’s holding a white dog.” At first Wendy was “spooked”. She couldn’t believe what the medium had said, as she knew nothing about Wendy. She and Alan indeed did have a beloved white dog which they had to put down a year before. The medium said that the firefighter was full of energy, and asked Wendy if she knew someone with the initials JC or JR, but she couldn’t think of anyone.
When she got home, there was a note from her son saying “call the firehouse”. She did, and someone called JR told her that the ladder truck Alan had been on had been found. While Wendy had been a cynic before seeing the medium, she says that now “I am a believer, and it helped me heal.” She no longer compares her situation with anyone else’s. “I don’t measure grief, I don’t judge others,” although Wendy admits that she has a hard time with people who are superficial.
The members of the support group helped hold each other together, and Wendy realized that this was what she wanted to do. She wanted to help others find their way through loss. So she went to school at The Institute For Professional Excellence in Coaching (IPEC), to become a Life Coach, graduating on her 50th birthday. She registered her business and went to work. As a Life Coach she was a facilitator of a group at a high school, and also did a 5 day yoga class for children called “Calm Kids Are Cool”. Because she liked to nurture children, she also became a benefactor of the Make A Wish Foundation, which grants the wishes of dying children. Helping others heal helped her heal as well. In that way, she paid it forward.
She joined a committee supporting Tuesday’s Children, www.tuesdayschildren.org, an organization which was formed to provide services for children who had lost parents or family members on Sept. 11. Its goal was to be there to help them until they reached the age of 18. Tuesday’s Children helped the children connect with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, kiddie programs, sporting events and college counseling for the older youth. It also provided an Outward Bound program for widow/ers. She and other Sept. 11 widows were invited to an Outward Bound trip to Utah, a survival experience. “It was the hardest thing I ever did.” They did activities that required them to trust one another, such as rafting, and propelling themselves on ropes, etc . While admittedly it was scary for Wendy, it helped her learn to trust again.
As a member of the Tuesday’s Children committee, she and 9 others participated in a training program called Creative Insights. The program helped them with them skill-building, trust issues, identity, and validation of who they were and who they could count on. As a member of Creative Insights, she also learned that it was ok to love again.
It was in 2003 that she met Steve Kotula, and they began to date. Although she had feelings for him, she was unable to say so for some time, because “I loved him...and I loved what was gone.” But since she had learned that it was ok to love again, something told her to go forward with her life. She and Steve were married in August of 2006. Together, they are realtors in New Jersey today. Tara and Michael are both married, and Wendy is now a proud grandmother. She knows that all of this would have made Alan very happy, seeing them happy.
It wasn’t until the 7th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack that she received a VCR tape of the firemen’s voices, the first real information about them, but none of them sounded like Alan. By the 10th anniversary a book had been written about it, and Wendy cried hard when she read Alan’s name in it. That made it real. He had lost his life there.
Three years ago, the curator of the planned Sept. 11 Museum called her, and said she had a snippet of Alan’s voice. He was on the 76th floor and going up, and Wendy heard him say, “We’re on our way”. She cried hard, since it was the first time she had actually heard his voice since before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But she has continued to become stronger since then. “Things don’t bother me anymore, because I’ve learned what’s important, what I can change and what I can’t change. I don’t measure grief, and I don’t pass judgment on others.”
It’s been a long and arduous journey for Wendy Feinberg-Kotula, and she has not emerged unscathed, but she has grown enormously by helping others. She can enjoy life again, and continues to pay it forward.
For more information about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, including not only the attack on New York, but also the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 77 in Shanksville, PA, see this link to the Sept. 11 Memorial Timeline at: www.Timeline.911Memorial.org. I also would strongly recommend you visit the Sept. 11 Memorial Museum in NYC, which opened in 2014. It’s website is: www.911Memorial.org. It’s an experience not to be missed, and an important part of American history.