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The Lives Left Behind

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Anna Mojica

Firefighter's widow and mother of two
Anna Mojica is getting really tired of people telling her how well she's doing. "I'm a mess. I don't tell my friends what I'm feeling," she says. "I put the face on. I lose it when I'm home, when I'm doing the chores that Manny used to do. I'll be crying when I'm trimming the hedges."

A 36-year-old beauty, she exudes the feistiness of a woman who kick-boxed as a hobby until she hurt her left knee. Sitting in the dining room of her comfy three-bedroom home on a tree-lined street in Bellmore, Long Island, she is wearing her firefighter husband's squad medallion on a chain, as well as a bracelet engraved with his name. This morning her children, Stephanie, 8, and Manny Jr., 6, are at camp. "They're okay, a little attached to me," she says. "They don't mind going on play dates, but if it's me that has to go somewhere, they're terrified."

Manny Jr. talks about his father incessantly, while Stephanie still hasn't cried. "I took her to a counselor, and they said she was doing okay," says Mojica. "She's just starting to bring him up, but she never talks about what happened." Mojica, who averages five hours of sleep a night, has joined a firefighter-widows support group that meets on Thursday nights: "It's good to know I'm not the only one going nuts."

Mojica's entire adult life revolved around Manny. She was only 15 when they met. Manny was her neighbor in Queens, and he used to whistle outside her apartment building to get her to come out for a ride on his Harley -- the motorcycle now sitting in their garage. Although she's Italian (née Vecchione) and he was Puerto Rican, this was not West Side Story, Astoria-style -- their families approved. In 1990 Manny joined the Fire Department, stationed at Squad 18 in Greenwich Village, and they married the next year.

"Every time he left for work, I cried," says Mojica, who worked at a bank after high school but gave up the job when Stephanie was born. "He didn't know that. The kids would say, 'What's the matter?' and I'd say, 'Nothing.' A lot of wives don't think about the danger; it got to me all the time."

She reaches for a cigarette. In the silence, Manny's beloved aquarium gurgles. Mojica's got this reel going in her mind about September 11. "It was the first morning he didn't wake me up to say good-bye. I heard the door close. I was going to get up to catch him to say good-bye, but I didn't want to make him late to miss his train. So I went back to bed, like a fool, and now I'll regret it the rest of my life."

Squad 18 lost seven men in the Trade Center; Manny was filmed entering Tower Two, in the Naudet brothers documentary aired on CBS -- "They sent me the two-minute clip, it made it more real, I didn't want to believe it" -- and he was last in radio contact from the thirty-fifth floor. "If I actually met somebody who was able to get out because of him," she says, "it would make it a little easier, give it a reason."

Raised Catholic, she has been so angry at God that she stayed away from services for most of this year. She's sought otherworldly comfort instead, frequently visiting psychics and having her cards read. She's defensive when she talks about this quest, but says defiantly that the sessions have helped. "It's not something I'd ever done in the past, but I was just trying to grab anything I could get," she says.

Given that she and Manny were always strapped for money, she finds it horribly ironic that his death will make her a millionaire, and she's appalled at the public reaction. "It bothers me that some people are saying how greedy we are." She starts to cry. "We don't want this, we didn't ask for it. I've got no clue how to deal with it, because we never had to worry about it."

Mojica says she can't imagine being involved with someone else. "People say, 'You're young, you can have another life.' I don't want another life. When my friends talk about it, it makes me nauseous." On April 22, the day that would have been her eleventh anniversary, she honored her much-tattooed husband by getting one of her own on her right ankle -- roses with a cross and her nickname for him, BABE.

Her best days are spent with her husband's pals from the firehouse. Howie Scott, a firefighter, stops by all the time to help out, and he and his wife took Mojica and the kids to the squad picnic in August. "Anna does better when she's around the guys," says Scott. "She knows she can feel a lot of things around us -- if she wants to cry or laugh or goof off, everything's okay with us."

The squad turned up recently to put a new roof on her house, remembering that Manny had worried about leaks. She is planning to spend September 11 at the ceremony at ground zero and then go to lunch at the firehouse. "This was his second family," she says. "I want to be with them."


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