Dennis Shortt remembers that morning as if it were yesterday. Whenever he found himself on the East Coast side of their Chicago-New York City romance, he usually beat his fiancee, Sharon Moore, up in the morning, even though she was the first to leave their Jamaica Estates apartment in the city's Queens borough for work.
That day was different. He hadn’t actually planned to be in New York during that time at all. After a whirlwind 10-day vacation together with stops in California—Sacramento (where he was partially raised), San Francisco, Oakland and his sister’s wedding in Napa Valley; Atlanta (to see his mom and brother); and Chicago (home base for his “touch marketing”/promotions company), Sharon was to fly back to New York solo, with Dennis joining her toward the end of the month.
But thanks to commercials from the then-TV show The Other Half—a male challenger to The View—that emphasized listening to the woman in your life, he had heard Sharon—whom he met at a model casting for a campaign he helmed in 1999—saying that they were returning to New York on Sept. 9. So he used his frequent flier miles to do just that.
And on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, after the two of them had spent the day before focused on each other, completely shutting out the rest of the world, he felt good. They were getting married, and Sharon, at 36, just over 10 years younger than he, had agreed to have a baby with him. That had been a contentious point for them because Sharon, already the mother of a teenage son, had not wanted another child (and he had two children as well). Something about this trip, however, changed her mind, and Dennis was ecstatic.
In the two years they had been together, Dennis was always the first to say, “I love you.” But this morning, Sharon, fully dressed for the day ahead, woke him up with a kiss and those precious words. It was only the second time he recalled her saying it first, and it felt different. Later, in the morning, he went about his New York routine of hitting the gym. Normally he left the cellphone behind, but this day, he even turned back to take it along.
Because the World Trade Center had been targeted before in 1993, when he first learned of this attack, he wasn’t immediately fearful. Plus, Sharon had eased his mind. “I really didn’t realize how bad it was because I talked to her after the first plane hit,” he says.
Later that morning, he checked in with her best girlfriend, and only then did he even consider that Sharon, who worked at Sandler O’Neill & Partners on the 104th floor of the 2 World Trade Center, could be seriously hurt. “I wouldn’t surrender to that thought,” he says. “I was very determined to believe that she was OK.”
Three weeks later, he was still holding on to that hope, which, he says, was not completely unreasonable. “People were still finding folks in the hospital three weeks later because people were John Doe for a while,” he explains.
Finally, before October ended, he, her siblings and his would-be mother-in-law held a memorial for Sharon, which was attended by family and friends. “She was never recovered,” he says. “They found a piece of her elbow bone. I learned that two years later on her birthday. Her mom told me. A year before, I learned on Valentine’s Day that they had found a credit card of hers.”
Still, he knows it could have been even worse. “I always tell people that I was grateful to be in New York because I was with New Yorkers. … Being there with her family, going to the hospitals, putting her picture out on the wall of the missing at the Armory on West Side Highway, meeting with the FBI and the Red Cross,” he says, helped tremendously. “Had I been in Chicago, I would probably still be a basket case.”
Fifteen years later, even after a lot of therapy, he is still single, although he did have that third child he wanted in a short-lived relationship. And while his days go a lot smoother now than then, the pain and love never subside.
“You are always living with the fact that you lost somebody that you loved and cared for in the World Trade Center,” he says. “Always. Because you can’t get away from it. Whenever I go to catch a flight, I realize that we’re doing [airport security] because of what happened on that day.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.