Daughter of Geneseo alumnus recalls 9/11, decade of growth

"Everyone kept saying he was coming home." These words invoke a slight pause as sophomore Brianne Kelly describes a certain morning 10 years ago.

James J. Kelly graduated from Geneseo in 1983 with a degree in criminal justice. He was on the men's soccer team and he was also the pledge master of the fraternity Delta Kau. He was a family man, dedicating his heart and soul to his high school sweetheart and his four children. He ensured the happiest and most fulfilling lives for them. He even served milkshakes for breakfast when The Mets won.

At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center where Kelly's office was located on the 105th floor. He was a bonds broker for Cantor-Fitzgerald. Twenty-five miles away in an Oceanside Elementary School classroom, nine-year-old Brianne Kelly felt a sort of internal crash. "It was math class at 8:46 a.m. and suddenly I got a really bad chill, and I was sent to the nurse for a spiked fever," Kelly recalled.

"He was on the phone with my mom when the planes hit," Kelly said. The phone was disconnected twice, marking indefinitely the last time the two would hear from each other.

For weeks the Kelly family waited. "Everyone was at my house: aunts, uncles, even my dad's pledge brothers. No one would tell me what was going on, and they wouldn't let me see my mom in the state she was in," Kelly said of that afternoon.

"My best friend Carla and me, we went to every hospital in town, checking every single description. There was nothing, absolutely nothing," Kelly said. "After three weeks, they told us they stopped looking for people, and anyone who wasn't found was presumed dead."

For two months, the Kelly family pieced themselves back together. They devoted themselves to each other, determined to pull through. "We all went to family-oriented therapy," she said. "At that point, it was more of keeping us together than letting us fall apart." The Kellys attended therapy at a 9/11 center where they met families going through similar situations. "Being with 9/11 families gave everyone a sense of security and comfort." Kelly said. "My friends didn't understand. They all had both of their parents."

James Kelly's fraternity brothers entered as father figures for Brianne and her siblings immediately after the tragedy.

"They tried to continue things he did. One of them taught me how to boogie board, and other little things my dad would've done but he wasn't there to do," Kelly said. "They're all so involved in our lives, and they give so much support."

Returning to school, however, wasn't easy, especially for a fourth grader. "It was like walking on eggshells. Even my teachers didn't know what to say to me. No one knew how to react. During that moment of silence when you start crying, it was just one of those things that people couldn't understand," Kelly said.

"[My mom] has done a great job. At the time, the twins were four, [my sister] was seven and I was nine. We didn't make it easy for her. We really didn't. She finally can smile," Kelly said of her mother.

This weekend marked the 10-year anniversary of the nationally reminisced date. To honor her father and many other workers, firefighters and police officers, Kelly read her father's name at ground zero. She met people who had experiences like hers. The air was light-hearted on the day of remembrance, rather than somber and mournful. A decade of growth, empowerment, rebuilding and progress marked it.

"Just the idea of saying his name made me cry," Kelly said, "But we weren't focused on the sadness. We focused on the remembrance." It was the first time she had been to the site since the collapse of the towers 10 years ago. James Kelly's name was placed next to the coworkers with whom he worked since he started at Cantor-Fitzgerald in 1993.

"We try to keep all of my dad's things alive. We always used to eat popcorn and M&Ms during movies, so we still do that. To make my sister and I eat yogurt, he used to let us put sprinkles and chocolate syrup in it," Kelly reflected with a chuckle.

 "It has gotten better, and we have grown so much. It keeps getting better as long as you're willing to accept what happens. You just can't forget. The more you talk about them, the more you realize they are not gone. They are missing temporarily, and you will see them again."

Now a sophomore, Kelly plans to follow in her father's footsteps at his alma mater. "At first it was hard to be at Geneseo, but that's the reason I came here," she said. "I knew it would be hard. I wanted to honor him, and I wanted to carry on his legacy."