Weeping With the Enemy

Phyllis Rodriguez lost her son at the World Trade Center. And then she found the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui.

On September 11, 2001, Phyllis Rodriguez got out of bed before dawn. A part-time teacher with two grown children, Rodriguez, then 58, had recently enrolled in a graduate program in teaching literacy. She had an assignment due later that day: Parse the language in a Langston Hughes poem called "Mother to Son."

After finishing her work at about 7:30 a.m., she pulled on her sneakers and went for a walk along the Bronx River near her home in White Plains. Her husband, Orlando, then 59, a sociology professor at Fordham University, was also leaving for the day. The morning was clear, and Rodriguez, who grew up taking nature walks through the Bronx, became absorbed by the view of herons at a widening in the water a few miles north. She skipped her usual turn and didn't get home for over an hour.

By the time she reached her front door, she knew something was off. The porter in her building told her there was a fire at the World Trade Center, and she hurried upstairs. Her son, Greg, worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 103rd floor of the north tower. She turned on both the TV and the answering machine.

To her relief, she heard Greg's voice on the tape: "There's been a terrible accident at the World Trade Center. I'm OK. Call Elizabeth." Then there were messages from Orlando—something about a plane hitting the building and something about how he couldn't get through to Greg. Rodriguez dialed Greg's number herself but she couldn't get through, either. More messages, this one from Julia, her daughter: "Do you know anything, do you know anything?"

Rodriguez finally reached Greg's wife, Elizabeth, who had been on her way back to her office from a meeting when she saw a plane headed downtown, flying low overhead in the West Thirties. "I told everyone, 'He's OK, he's OK,' " Rodriguez says. "I told them I'd gotten a message from Greg. I assumed he was out of the building. I had no idea."

When she watched the plane hit the second tower on TV, Rodriguez knew that none of it was an accident. But the phone message from Greg had made her hopeful. She remembers calmly instructing Elizabeth to stay at work. Greg would eventually walk uptown with everyone else, picking up Elizabeth along the way, and then the young couple would take the train home to White Plains, where they lived about a block away from the Rodriguezes. But the afternoon passed, and then it was dark, and then it was night. Still no word from Greg.

Rodriguez says she suspected the worst, but she refused to believe it. "I can sometimes be ridiculously optimistic," she says now, five years later. "Ridiculously. It's my nature. For some reason, it reassures me to think that good outweighs evil, or that more good than bad happens."

By the next night, Greg's death was undeniable. Rodriguez shook uncontrollably when authorities announced that those who hadn't been found should be presumed dead. Part of her still refused to believe it.

"What are we going to do without him?" Rodriguez asked her husband.

"Well," he replied, "We're going to do."

Phyllis and Orlando tried to bury their grief in meetings with their friends and family, and with the families of other 9-11 victims. They saw counselors. Given their lefty political leanings, they sent letters to The New York Times beseeching the government to not go to war in Greg's name. They avoided parties and holiday celebrations. They stopped watching TV and movies—Phyllis says they were afraid of being "ambushed" by a memory of their dead 31-year-old son. They read books about sorrow and death. They slept.

No single act could, of course, resolve the loss. But in the end, the one thing that has given Phyllis Rodriguez the most palpable relief is that she has befriended Aïcha el-Wafi, mother of Al Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.


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Getting a grip: Rodriguez, left, and Moussaoui’s mom this summer in France
photo: Grant Stapleton
For Phyllis Rodriguez, first there had been disbelief and an inability to speak. Then there was unfocused anger at the hijackers for their stupidity and cruelty. But wishing violence on the hijackers didn't help—they were dead. Her anger eventually became more focused.

"I was angry at Osama bin Laden," she says carefully, reclining into a seat in her White Plains home. "He plays fast and loose with lives, and not just the perceived enemy but also the peoplewho are under his influence.

"And I became very, very angry at our government because I felt very early on that the government wasn't going to make it better. I would have loved to blame the government for what happened, but I can't, in all honesty. I think it was just safer. If I believed in everything George Bush was doing, then who'd I be angry at? My husband? It's safer to be angry with the government than to take it out on your husband."


Amid the anger, pangs of guilt surfaced. She wondered whether there was something she could have done at some crucial moment in Greg's life so that he never ended up in that building in the first place. "It was feeling that I should have had control enough to prevent what happened," Rodriguez says, "my regrets about my lack of omnipotence."

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