Daughter of Disaster's Letter Reaches Out to Children Left Behind on Sept. 11

Like so many others around the world, Kathie Scobee Fulgham watched New York's twin towers implode and crumble on national television, again and again.

But for Fulgham — the daughter of Challenger space shuttle Cmdr. Dick Scobee — the image stirred up personal, painful memories. She, too, lost a parent in a national tragedy that many saw live, as it happened. And she, too, relived her father's death again and again on television.

She knew she had to reach out to the children left behind on Sept. 11. So she wrote them a letter.

"When I was watching the terrorist attacks, it felt very familiar, these explosions in the sky," said Fulgham, 40, of Chattanooga, Tenn. "I immediately thought of the children who would be affected. I wanted to do something. I wanted to help these children deal with this."

In the first days following Sept. 11, Fulgham says, she jotted her thoughts and feelings down on post-it notes. Less than a week after the attacks, she collected them in a letter that she sent to news services like Gannett, Cox and The Associated Press. Soon, newspapers around the country were printing it and people were circulating it via e-mail.

"My father died a hundred times a day on televisions all across the country," she wrote. "Everyone saw it, everyone hurt, everyone grieved, everyone wanted to help. But that did not make it any easier for me. They wanted to say good-bye to American heroes. I just wanted to say good-bye to my daddy."

Fulgham was 25 years old on Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle carrying her father burst into flames seconds after it launched. She and 10 other children of the crewmembers looked on from a nearby rooftop.

Her mourning was intensified by the non-stop television broadcasts and news coverage of the explosion and the fact that many people saw the accident happen live on TV, making it, she wrote, "a moment of private grief ... [that] turned into a very public torture."

"The grieving process was always stalled every time I saw something about it," she said. "It is incredibly painful. To most people it's history. To the children, it's their parents blowing up."

She worries that those who lost parents in the Sept. 11 attacks will feel forever branded as victims, forever watched and looked at differently, forever haunted by images of how their mothers or fathers perished.

"I'm concerned they'll remember more about the way their parents died than the way their parents lived," she said. She wants to encourage them not to forget.

Her letter has already soothed some left behind in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"It was the first thing that actually put my thoughts and feelings into words," said Una McHugh, 35, whose firefighter husband Dennis died trying to rescue people from the twin towers. "Everything I was experiencing made sense all of a sudden. I was crying reading it."

McHugh, of Rockland County, N.Y., said she plans to save Fulgham's note and show it to her three children, 6-year-old Chloe and 1-year-old twins Joseph and Sophie, when they're older.

"It's going to be so meaningful forever," she said.

In fact, Fulgham's letter inspired McHugh to start a support group and Web site for firefighters' widows, www.nyfdwidows.net.

Lynda Fiori, 30, who also lost her husband Paul in the attacks, said she struggles with what to say to her tiny daughters, now 2 years old and 5 months, when they grow up and ask what happened to their father.

"My daughters are so young that they really don't understand. I don't even know how I'm going to explain it to them," said Fiori, of Westchester County, N.Y. "I try not to think what I'll have to say in a few years."

Fulgham's written words might well be the answer.

"I would definitely read that to them," Fiori said. "It's a beautiful letter."