Weeping With the Enemy

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

But four months before he was supposed to graduate from high school, Greg packed a bag, grabbed his harmonica, and dropped out of school. He planned to hitchhike across the country. Within a couple weeks, he was back in New York because he decided that the trip wasn't shaping up the way he thought it would.

"We used to say that he can't be told something; he has to learn it for himself," Rodriguez says. "He won't believe the iron was hot. He has to burn his arm on it."

"On the surface, it seemed that Greg had screwed up, thrown everything away," adds David Hackenburg, a friend of Greg's since middle school. "He would get impatient. He was a very smart guy with strong opinions, and his acting out, it had something to do with not wanting to be like anyone else and not doing something just because you're supposed to. He wanted to make his own way on his own terms, and some of it came out naively."


See also:
Your Turn: Befriending a Terrorist's Mom
What would you do in Phyllis Rodriguez's shoes?

For the next couple of years, Greg worked odd jobs at restaurants, gas stations, and liquor stores. He eventually moved in with his sister in Staten Island. He took on more temp jobs. He met a young woman through a political organization that supported "an alternative to the oppressive U.S.-backed policies of the Salvadoran right" in El Salvador, and they were married soon after she got pregnant. His only son, Silvio, was born in 1991, just as the rest of his childhood friends were graduating from college. Greg had earned his GED and he was trying out the New School, but he dropped out after a year, when he realized the effort it would take to support a family. But then, his marriage didn't work out anyway, and he got divorced a few years after Silvio was born.

By his early twenties, Greg was starting to tire of driving cabs and working as a prep cook. He decided to explore his interest in computers. He landed a temp job at Salomon Brothers on the help desk, which is where he met his second wife, Elizabeth, in a department meeting. "When Greg walked into a room, he became the guy that everyone wanted to sit next to," Elizabeth says.

Skilled and charismatic, Greg was eventually given a permanent position at Salomon, followed by a succession of promotions. After a few years, he landed a job as the vice president of e-mail security at the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald.

Greg's friends and family marveled at his sudden turnaround—the former rebel with the pink mohawk was now wearing suits, traveling to South America on business trips, happily married, living in White Plains, and saving money for a house in Tarrytown.

During the Labor Day weekend of 2001, Greg and Elizabeth capped their summer with a vacation to Seattle to visit Elizabeth's sister and Silvio. Greg, a scuba diver, went on a dive in Puget Sound. Elizabeth always worried that Greg's diving was too risky and that he might hurt himself, but when he got back that day, he said it was the best dive of his life.

Back in New York, Elizabeth and Greg caught the train on the morning of September 11 as they normally did. Elizabeth recalls sleeping on his shoulder while he thumbed through the Times. They parted ways at Grand Central. Elizabeth walked on to her office in midtown, while Greg, as he had for the past four years, caught the train to the World Trade Center.

After Zacarias Moussaoui admitted he was guilty for conspiring in the 9-11 terrorist plot, it took nearly a year before the sentencing trial was held at a federal court- house in Alexandria, Virginia. A few days before the proceedings began, Aïcha el-Wafi traveled to the U.S. from Narbonne, France. On her lapel, she wore a Japanese peace crane pin that Phyllis Rodriguez had given her.

When el-Wafi emerged from the terminal, Rodriguez hugged her and linked arms with her, and together they marched through a phalanx of TV cameras and newspaper reporters to the car.

Rodriguez says she tried to be a calming presence for el-Wafi. The day before the sentencing hearing started, the two women visited the courthouse together so they wouldn't get lost on their way to the hearing. They drove past the federal prison so el-Wafi could see the blocky fortress that housed her raving and angry son. Rodriguez was in el-Wafi's hotel room when the Frenchwoman saw Moussaoui in a news clip on TV. "He looks thinner," el-Wafi remarked.

Rodriguez's husband had agreed to testify in the sentencing hearing on behalf of Moussaoui's defense because he, like his wife, didn't believe in the death penalty. In order to prevent an appearance of conflict of interest, Phyllis Rodriguez and el-Wafi were not public about their deepening bond. (Orlando Rodriguez says that he consciously avoided contact with el-Wafi once he agreed to testify in the hearing.) It was mostly was out of the camera's glare, says Phyllis Rodriguez, that the women's friendship blossomed.

Mostly, Rodriguez and el-Wafi provided each other with much needed distraction from the weight of the events unfolding in the courtroom. They met for breakfast each morning and dinner each night and talked about the minutiae and the mundane. They took walks near the courthouse when the legal circus became too intense. On the second day of the trial, when el-Wafi retreated to her hotel room after Moussaoui refused to acknowledge her presence in the courtroom, Rodriguez rushed to her side to comfort her. As the days passed, they swapped and shared clothes. "They were like girlfriends or sisters," says Renny Cushing, who had introduced them.

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