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Davis family remembers pain, loss of niece in terror attacks

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Posted: Sunday, September 11, 2011 12:21 am | Updated: 1:26 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

• Editor's Note: For our complete coverage of the Sept. 11 events, visit newsminer.com/sept11

FAIRBANKS - A decade has passed since Sept. 11, 2001, yet the pain remains for Cheryl Davis, who lost her 26-year-old niece Kirsten Reese (Janssen) Santiago in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City.

Davis, living in Fairbanks at the time, raised her niece as her own daughter from the time Kirsten was 9 years old until the 1993 West Valley High School graduate left Alaska to attend college.

“I don’t think the pain will ever go away,” Davis said. “It is still very vivid and still very real. I don’t think I am any different than any other parent who has lost a child, and I don’t think that is ever going to change.”

Today, Davis is in New York City with family members to attend the opening of the National September 11 Memorial, a tribute of remembrance and honor to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, the site near Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon, as well as the six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing in February 1993.

Davis’ daughter, Liz Tatum; son, Thomas Swart; and Peter Santiago, Kirsten’s husband, are accompanying her to the memorial dedication in a special ceremony for victims’ families.

Kirsten’s name and the names of the almost 3,000 who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels edging two memorial pools and a waterfall at the site as a reminder of the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil and the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in U.S. history.

A memorial museum at the World Trade Center site is slated to open in 2012.

“My son-in-law has prepared some of Kirsten’s personal possessions for the museum,” Davis said. “There is an area for every person who was killed there.”

•••

Davis was the last person to talk to Kirsten that morning.

She was awakened early by a phone call from Kirsten, who was a temp worker at Insurance Overload Systems, located on the 78th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

One of the hijacked planes had slammed into the tower about six floors above her office.

Kirsten had already spoken to her husband, Peter Santiago, an Amtrak security guard, before calling Davis. She said she and her office mates were told to stay where they were and wait for rescuers who would lead them to safety.

The call lasted only a few minutes before the line went dead, and Davis remembers their conversation almost word for word.

“She kept telling me not to be frightened, not to worry, that help was on the way.”

Kirsten also told Davis that she could see people out her window jumping from the floors above.

And when Davis turned on the television during the conversation and saw the smoke pouring from the towers, she pleaded with Kirsten to leave the building immediately, saying “You have to get out now.”

Moments later, the phone line went dead, and Davis watched the television as the North Tower collapsed.

The ensuing days, weeks and months, were filled with hills and valleys of grief and anguish for Davis.

The support of her family, her church family and medical care helped her through the first anxiety-ridden first year after Kirsten’s death.

•••

Kirsten was 9 years old when she joined the Davis household.

Her mother had died and her father had Alzheimer’s and wasn’t able to care for her. She was an infant the last time Davis had seen her, and the transition into a new family was difficult at first for the youngster.

“We got through it,” Davis recalled. “She called me ‘Mom’ and my kids were her brothers and sister.”

Davis described Kirsten as strong-willed at times, but the trait helped her reach her goals. At West Valley, she enjoyed gymnastics and played the flute in the school band before graduating in 1993.

Kirsten went on to earn an economics degree at Mansfield College in Pennsylvania. It was there she met Santiago. They married after graduation and moved to the Bronx, one of the five New York City boroughs.

A dog lover, Kirsten was involved with training her pets as therapy dogs and visiting nursing homes. The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs website continues to showcase Kirsten’s work with photos in a memorial tribute.

Davis is grateful for the positive memories.

She sent Kirsten and her husband round-trip tickets to Fairbanks so the couple could attend the high school graduation of Davis’ daughter along with Davis’ two sons, Thomas and Marcus Swart. Davis also arranged for family photos to be taken. It turned out to be the last time they would all be together.

•••

This is Davis’ second trip to New York City since the attacks. Although Kirsten’s body was never found, Davis and family members returned in November 2001 for Kirsten’s funeral.

It was held in the Bronx neighborhood where Kirsten lived with Santiago and his extended family. Many of the couple’s college friends attended, along with a large contingent of police and a bagpipe band.

On the first anniversary of the attacks, Davis attended a remembrance service and continued compiling a scrapbook about Kirsten that included letters from family members to Kirsten and that she later presented to Santiago.

Davis is well aware that today’s memorial, like other annual 9/11 remembrances, will bring back painful memories.

But she hopes the national memorial event, marking 10 years, will also bring some closure for her and her family.

Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.

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