Husband of Sept. 11 United 93 Victim Reflects on Past Five Years

On one devastating morning five years ago, the life of California advertising executive Jack Grandcolas changed forever.

That day, Sept. 11, 2001, 38-year-old Lauren Grandcolas, his wife of 10 years who was three months pregnant with their first child, boarded an earlier flight home than she was scheduled to take from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco.

Her plane, United 93, has now become legendary as the fourth and last airliner to be hijacked that day.

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Instead of hitting its intended target, believed to be either the White House or the Capitol in Washington, it went down in a field in Shanksville, Pa.

Based on flight data, the Sept. 11 Commission Report and phone conversations family members on the ground had with their loved ones in the air, it is widely believed that the passengers plotted and began to execute a revolt against the terrorists who took over the plane, helping to avert the last planned attack.

In the five years since his world fell apart, Jack Grandcolas has had to adjust to a totally new existence than the one he had before Sept. 11.

"It's a completely different life," said Grandcolas, now 43, of San Rafael, Calif. "You go from being a husband and potential father to being a widower, having a home that's empty. Half of you is gone."

He and Lauren had moved into a house suited for starting a family. She'd had other pregnancies that hadn't gone full-term, so they were waiting until after she came back from her grandmother's funeral in New Jersey to tell relatives. They'd just found out about the baby themselves about a week or 10 days before she left for the East Coast.

But those plans and dreams crumbled on Sept. 11. Grandcolas' focus went from being a good husband, preparing for fatherhood, working and enjoying life to doing the bare-minimum basics: getting out of bed in the morning, bathing, eating what little he could.

"You start off with just the surreal sadness of it all," he said. "There are so many stages of grieving. There's never closure. There's chapters of closure. Those chapters come daily, weekly, monthly. But the final closure won't come 'til the day I die."

His life became unrecognizable to him. He attended his wife's funeral services in California and Houston, where she was from, and other Sept. 11 memorials. The White House extended an invitation to him and the rest of the victims' families, and he went. Eventually, he gathered up the strength to sort through Lauren's clothes and belongings. He read a mountain of sympathy notes and answered as many as he could. He did media interviews when he felt it was necessary.

Grandcolas didn't go back to work full time until January or February, though he began easing into it in November and December. For those first six months after Sept. 11, he was in utter shock.

"You kind of live in a zombie state," he said. "It's as if someone rips open your chest, reaches in and grabs your heart, shoves it back in your chest and says, OK, walk on. You've been mortally wounded, but you're not dead. It's an odd feeling. I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

What replaced it turned out to be worse, however: longing. Longing to have Lauren — his best friend and love, the woman he'd met in college in 1985 and spent 15 years with — back again. Longing for things to be different.

Finally he realized that depression had crept up on him, too. It was his therapist who diagnosed him.

"I'd lost 30 pounds. I thought I had cancer," said Grandcolas. "My grief counselor said, no, you're just depressed. … It probably set in immediately, but it takes time to do its damage."

Once he knew what he was dealing with, he was able to begin to address it, he said. He started exercising and trying to seek those "brighter moments" in the day to carry him through.

"People really do come to your rescue," he said. "It's amazing. You live on in your loved one's spirit. I remember hearing Lauren say, They may have gotten me, but they're not going to take you too."

Slowly, Grandcolas was able to get involved in positive projects born out of the tragedy. He and other of Lauren's family set up an organization in her name, The Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas Foundation, and did fundraisers for it whose proceeds went to scholarships for young women and a neonatal care unit in Houston.

He and the rest of her family raised $50,000 to establish a birthing room at Marin General Hospital, where she would likely have had their baby, "to add some silver lining to a great cloud," he said.

"Because she cared so much about babies and loved them so much and was very compassionate to mothers, it just seemed like the right thing to do — just to have something in her name helping mothers and babies every day, year in and year out," said Grandcolas.

He visits Lauren's birthing room regularly, and last week stopped in on a woman in labor for the first time.

"It's the unexpected return on that donation that is really kind of bitter sweet," he said. "It brings a lot of inspiration."

Grandcolas knew that one of the first things Lauren would have wanted him to do was finish and publish the book that she'd recently begun, inspired by her childhood days earning badges as a Girl Scout. So he did just that with her two sisters. "You Can Do It: The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls" — a how-to guidebook motivating women to do everything from skydiving to cooking a good meal at home — came out in May 2005.

"She was a very strong woman," he said. "It was very important for her to show other women that anything a man can do, a woman can do."

He also, along with the other family members of Flight 93 passengers, consulted director Paul Greengrass on his film "United 93," which came out in April. He bristles at the suggestion that the movie came out too soon "when every single family member agreed it wasn't."

"If it's not too soon for me, then how can it be too soon for you?" Grandcolas wondered. "We're relieved the story is out there … I thought it was provocative, powerful, honorable. Obviously it is a difficult thing to relive the ending of your loved one's life, but I thought it also had a hint of inspiration."

Grandcolas also attended a U2 concert this past year with some friends, one of whom knows lead singer Bono and arranged for a tribute. Before he sang "One Tree Hill," which he wrote for a friend of his who died, Bono told the audience: "This is for beautiful Lauren."

It had particular significance because Lauren and Jack went to a U2 concert on their very first date in 1985, when the band that would become legendary was still relatively unknown.

"I still have the ticket stub," Grandcolas said. "That tribute was magical. I just had to bury my head in my hands. She was beaming down on us. It was just one of the happier moments of closure, one of those things where you say, Now I can move on one more step."

Grandcolas eventually moved out of the house he shared with Lauren, though he stayed in San Rafael. And as the five-year mark of the terrorist attacks approaches, he is trying to look ahead rather than dwelling on the past.

He's working on raising money for a permanent United 93 memorial in Shanksville. He plans to stop talking to reporters after this year and concentrate on taking better care of himself. And he's begun to think about the possibility that he will marry again and have the children he's always wanted.

"Reliving it every year like we do, it's not healthy," he said. "I'm going to do what Lauren would want me to do, maybe meet someone else and have a family. It's possible, and I’m hopeful. It's not like going to the grocery store and replacing an item you've run out of. It's a process. It's kind of frightening, to be honest."

Though he agrees that no one will ever fully know what happened aboard United 93, he believes that along with the rest of the passengers, his "petite, beautiful, dynamic" wife — a marketing coordinator, a trained EMT and the type who would take charge and inspire others to do the same — did successfully thwart a fourth grand-scale attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's another silver lining to that gray day," said Grandcolas. 'These people rose up and turned the tables on the terrorists."

One of the things for which Grandcolas is most grateful are Lauren's last words to him, which are forever recorded on an answering machine message she left from the air. The phone ringer had been turned off as usual, and now he's glad he didn't hear the call she made after the hijackers had taken control of the plane because he may have been haunted by how she was feeling or spent those final moments with her panicking.

What he got instead was a very calm, quiet and loving good-bye from his wife that he can keep with him always.

"Jack, pick up, Sweetie," Lauren said on the voicemail. "I'm OK. I just wanted to tell you I love you. There's a little problem on the plane. I'm totally fine for now. I … I'll … I love you more than anything. Just know that. Please tell my family I love them too."

"It's a gift," said Grandcolas. "She was a bright light in the world who is now a star in the sky."

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