18 years after 9/11, survivors continue to find ways to commemorate a tragedy that lives on for them

Anne Potts sought the name of her friend, Neillie Anne Heffernan, at the Garden of Remembrance 9/11 Memorial Tuesday.
Anne Potts sought the name of her friend, Neillie Anne Heffernan, at the Garden of Remembrance 9/11 Memorial Tuesday.David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Eighteen years later, questions continue to haunt David T. Gay.

“I still have a hard time trying to figure out how the people on that plane felt,” the Taunton attorney said in a phone interview Tuesday. “How long before the crash did they actually realize what was happening?”

His brother, Raytheon Co. executive Peter A. Gay, was among 92 people aboard American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001, when it crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

About 17 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175, also out of Logan Airport, struck the South Tower. A third plane struck the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers fought back against hijackers. More than 200 victims of the attacks had ties to Massachusetts. Last year, David Gay was master of ceremonies for the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund’s annual Sept. 11 commemoration at the State House, but this year he plans to stay closer to home and attend Taunton’s remembrance with family.

He is among many surviving family members in Massachusetts who must decide each year how to mark an event that remains with them daily, even as it recedes into memory for others.


“It’s been a while now, but it hasn’t changed much, I guess,” Gay, 73, said about the loss of his brother, just 13 months younger. “It’s pretty much the same feeling every year, that you go back and try to remember how this all happened, and the magnitude of the events.”

On that clear, cool, nightmarish morning, David Gay was in his law office, absorbing new details as they became available. When he realized that the first crash could have been his brother’s plane, he called Raytheon.

“His secretary said, ‘He was supposed to be on that plane, but we don’t know if he was,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘I know my brother. If he was supposed to be on that plane, he was.’ ”


Christie Coombs, whose husband Jeff also died on Flight 11, will spend Wednesday observing Sept. 11’s designation as a National Day of Service and Remembrance.

She plans to participate in a Red Cross blood drive at Fenway Park sponsored by the Red Sox and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and then to volunteer with the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund to assemble care packages for service members on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

“Those are the things that we want people to do [to] remember 9/11. It’s turning something negative into a positive,” the Abington resident said.

Christie and Jeff’s three children were 13, 11, and 7 when Flight 11 struck the tower. Now they are adults who have lived longer without a father than with one. But Jeff is always with the Coombses, his widow said.

“There are still pictures in our house. We still tell stories . . . we call them ‘Dad stories,’ ” Christie Coombs, 58, said. “Whenever my kids are going through something where they need advice, I always ask them, ‘What do you think Dad would say?’ ”

When their son, Matthew, was married earlier this year, she gave him a photograph of himself as a 1-year-old with his father, both wearing huge grins. He kept it in his jacket pocket during the ceremony.

“He’ll be with us always,” she said of her late husband. “Time doesn’t change that. We’ll always miss him, and he’ll always be close to us . . . If he could be here today, he would be super proud of the kids, and what they’ve accomplished, and how they’ve grown up to be like him, funny and kind.”


On Sunday, she will host the 18th Annual Jeff Coombs Memorial Road Race, Walk and Family Day in Abington, which already has 500 registered participants. She plans to end the event after the 20th race in 2021, she said, another acknowledgment that time continues to pass, regardless of whether its wounds heal.

Coombs said “it’s human nature” that people go on with their lives, and that even the most tragic events grow distant, but it’s important not to forget those who were lost.

“We can’t dwell on the past, but we do want people to remember,” she said, “because something as simple as saying someone’s name out loud . . . that means the world, because it means that people remember.”

The Massachusetts 9/11 Fund’s annual commemoration at the State House will begin at 8:30 a.m. with a flag lowering, moment of silence, and reading of the names of Massachusetts residents who were killed.

The event will move into the House of Representatives chamber for a 9:30 a.m. observation and the presentation of the Madeline Amy Sweeney Award for Civilian Bravery, named for a Flight 11 flight attendant from Acton who contacted authorities on the ground to relay crucial information about the plane’s hijackers.


There will be a private reception for the families of those lost at 11 a.m. and a wreath-laying ceremony at the Boston Public Garden at 1 p.m.

The Red Cross blood drive at Fenway Park runs from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund will assemble care packages on the Mothers Walk of the Rose Kennedy Greenway from noon to 2:30 p.m.

The Jeff Coombs Memorial Road Race, Walk, and Family Day will take place Sunday, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Woodsdale School in Abington.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.