One Victim: a Son, a Sibling, a Fiancee, My Brother’s Best Friend

When my brother Kenny received confirmation last Thursday that his closest friend and roommate, a kid he’d been living with since day one of his freshman year, was dead, he was sitting in a small, secluded room at the Armory on Lexington Avenue. Bob was among the first non-city workers to be pulled from the debris. The fact that his body – mostly intact, with his wallet toidentify him – had been recovered less than 48 hours after the collapse of Tower One was itself a small and bitter miracle. Then another strange thing happened. The mayor walked in.

He was unaccompanied – without cameras, without an entourage, without anything, really; it seemed, in fact, like Giuliani was grateful to have such a narrow purpose at that moment, when so many victims’ families were aimlessly wandering the streets. There were nine mourners in total: Bob’s parents, his brother, his fiancée, his friends. The mayor embraced everyone, gave Bob’s mother and fiancée kisses, and took a seat on a faded leather sofa.

“Tell me about your son.”

That’s a very hard thing to do in ten minutes, which is all they really had. But they tried to cram in as much as they could: Bob McIlvaine was great-looking, charming, unswervingly decent. Bob asked tons of questions, listened carefully to answers, and came across, to almost everyone, as your quintessential good guy. He had a few endearing eccentricities (at 26, the age he died, he still required a pile of cookies and a glass of milk before going to bed) and a few very conventional streaks, too. He spent two years in publishing, then two more in the world of corporate communications. He and Jennifer, his fiancée, were to get married sometime next year.

From the nature of Bob’s injuries, he probably made it all the way down from the 106th floor – at least, that’s what the people at the morgue speculated – which would likely mean he died while running, his veins flooded with adrenaline. “And if he was down at the bottom,” says his father, Bob Sr., “I’m willing to bet he was trying to help other people escape.” Me too.

Bob didn’t work in the World Trade Center. He was only there for a meeting, though my brother, his friend Andre (also a college roomie), and Jennifer didn’t know this for sure until around 5 p.m., after a series of frantic phone calls to Bob’s employer (Merrill Lynch), then his previous employer, and then, desperately, to just about everyone they knew.

On Wednesday, Bob’s father and brother took the train to New York from Philadelphia. Bob Sr. made a fruitless tour of the city’s makeshift triage centers, standing on long lines, hoping to collect the most up-to-date lists of the wounded. He’d heard rumors about unconscious victims at New York-Presbyterian, on 68th and York. Up he went. Nothing. Bob’s brother spent the day with my brother and Andre, making more phone calls, entering Bob’s name on all possible registers, checking the Web. In the afternoon, my brother also went down to the missing-persons center at 26th and First and stood on line, filling out an eight-page document of byzantine and seemingly pointless detail. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “I think those forms were created for the sake of the people who were filling them out, just to give us something to do.”

Bob’s father slept in his son’s room that night. My brother said it wasn’t as awful as it sounds, though the next morning, grammar became a problem. My brother was forcing himself to still use the present tense.

That morning, Bob’s mother and fiancée also arrived from Philadelphia. Then, around noon, a phone call from a detective: Bob had been found. Everyone was instructed to go to the Armory.

A line was curling around the block; the building itself was teeming with the desperate and the hysterical. A diligent chaplain found Bob’s name on a list and ushered them past the horde, down into the basement, and, ultimately, into that tiny room.

Everyone found themselves surrounded pretty quickly by an army of social workers, psychiatrists, and members of the Red Cross. They were plied with condolences, names and numbers of bereavement groups, and offers to write prescriptions for sleep medication. “If you can be royalty at a time like this,” said Bob’s mother, Helen, her voice heavy with irony, “we were. I felt like New York lost one person, and it was Bobby.” They spoke with Giuliani. And then they left.

A policewoman drove Andre and Bob’s brother, Jeff, over to his dentist’s office to pick up dental records so the body could be officially identified; then she drove Andre and Bob’s father to the morgue at 30th and First.

That night, about 30 people gathered at my folks’ apartment. “I really wanted to see the body for closure,” his father told us. “But they wouldn’t let me. His head …” He started to cry.

They are astonishing people, the McIlvaines, and so is Bob’s fiancée. Within a half-hour or so, they were chatting with everyone, being funny even, and trying to console the more tearful people around them, as grieving people are so often left to do. But every now and then they’d slip out of the conversation or discreetly start to weep. “The small talk, it’s good for a while,” Bob Sr. told me wearily. “But it’s also tough. You want to be gracious to people; everyone wants to help. But you have to get away from it. Eventually, you have to be alone.”

I kept watching my brother. He has said very little through this; the words he’s looking for seem to be buried in his grief. I wanted to tell him that one day, though it seems improbable now, he’ll find another person with whom he can speak in shorthand, move through the world, and accumulate a history.

He finally opened up a bit around midnight, as the guests cleared. “The weather has been so beautiful these last three nights,” he murmured. “Every outdoor café and bar uptown has been full. And yet, when I realize that people are using this as an opportunity to have a few drinks … I mean, on the one hand, I’m very jealous. On the other, I’m very resentful. It’s impossible to imagine a single day of my life without Bob.”

One Victim: a Son, a Sibling, a Fiancee, […]