Out of the twisted wreckage of two collapsed New York City skyscrapers, Mark Gajewski helped erect one of the most significant 9/11 artifacts: the steel Ground Zero cross.
The symbol touched people beyond the many emergency responders who found it a source of comfort and divine inspiration. For Gajewski’s only daughter, Crystal, the 17-foot cross is one small part of her father’s legacy. As an operating engineer, he helped clear away the World Trade Center debris. He died 10 years later from a rare form of lung cancer at the age of 52.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it isn’t an artifact or special memento that makes a person a hero, but their innate intent to help others,” Crystal Gajewski said. “My father may not have received a medal and he will not appear in any textbooks, but to me and those that knew him best, he was one of the great unsung heroes.”
Gajewski rushed to the scene four hours after the towers fell, his daughter said, and was one of the first people to assess the situation.
“He worked six months straight without coming home at Ground Zero, nine months total,” she said.
At Ground Zero, Gajewski endured unthinkable trauma, both emotional and physical. He found human body parts in the rubble at the site, his daughter said, including the hands, bound at the wrist, of a flight attendant. And when he came down with strange ailments and coughing, his daughter said that doctors initially were perplexed. Because of his untimely death, the 9/11 cleanup worker never saw his son Sean graduate law school and become an attorney for the U.S. Coast Guard. He never got to meet his first grandchild, Mia.
Father Brian Jordan, from St. Francis Assisi church in New York City wants people to know that Mark Gajewski represents the thousands of union construction workers who completed the remarkable task of demolishing and removing the fallen building from the site.
“You hear about the dedication and the sacrifice of the fire fighters and police officers, but not the talented union construction workers: the operating engineers, the electricians, the welders, and others who performed an incredible task on time and under budget,” Jordan said. He also calls them unsung heroes.
Mark Gajewski’s name and the names of more than 1,200 other responders are engraved on a shiny, black granite wall in the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park on Smithtown Boulevard in Nesconset. This year, 206 more responders’ names were inscribed. Last year 163 names were added. So, the effects of 9/11 are still mounting. All of them, uniformed and nonuniformed have died of a 9/11-related illness. As the list grows, so does the crowd that attends the annual 9/11 Responders Remembered tribute. More than 500 people gathered on Sept. 14 for this year’s event.
Nesconset resident John Feal, a 9/11 responder, served as demolition supervisor for the cleanup and had part of his foot amputated after a steel beam fell on it. The tireless advocate built the park with the help of others. He has said that he has been to more than 180 funerals for responders and wants to ensure that all the people who fell ill and lost their lives as a consequence of responding to the disaster are remembered for their sacrifices. “No Responder Left Behind” is his motto. The Nesconset park, he said, is unique because it’s inclusive. The names of responders who died are not excluded because of where they lived or what job title they held, or whether or not they wore uniforms.
So, as the tragedy continues to take its toll, Crystal Gajewski and her family and the many other volunteers remain dedicated to preserving the honor and dignity of her father and all the other people who ultimately sacrificed their lives as a result of cleaning up the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. She serves as volunteer vice president of the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park with John Feal and has created a separate foundation Ski’s Open Heart in her father’s honor.
Crystal said she hopes that her father’s story and the foundation she created for him inspires others to look within themselves and find time and the desire to help others.
Feature Photo by Crystal Gajewski