'Taken so violently': Sister of 9/11 victim speaks of family's never-ending grief

The day before the world changed forever, 39-year-old Sean Canavan began working in the South Tower of the World Trade Centre.

Along with his brother, Sean was a carpenter with a New York firm that had just been contracted to refurbish the offices on the 91st floor.

It was from there, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Sean witnessed the first plane hit the adjacent North Tower at 8.46am.

The young carpenter had joined hundreds of others in a mass evacuation of the building although his family don’t know whether he made it down to the street.

Some time during the panic and confusion Sean phoned one of his sisters, Kathleen, but the line was engaged so he left her a message. It would be the last time his family ever heard his voice.

Shortly after the first tower was hit and those inside the still-unscathed South Tower were attempting to evacuate, an announcement came over the building’s loud speaker asking people to remain inside. Sean and the others were told it was safe in the tower. Burning debris was raining from the sky from the North Tower and it wasn’t safe for people down below on the street.

Besides, “nobody could predict” what would happen next, Sean’s other sister, Celine Canavan, explained.

“Who would have thought another plane was coming?” she said.

Sean remained inside the South Tower and at 9.03am the second Boeing passenger plane struck the World Trade Centre.

Sean Canavan with his nephew and godson Aidan. Source: Celine Canavan / Supplied

Family’s world shattered

On the other side of the world from New York City, then 30-year-old Celine was at home in Ireland with her three-year-old son –– who Sean was a godfather to –– and like most of the world, staring at the TV as news unfolded about a passenger jet hitting the Twin Towers.

Originally from New York City, Ms Canavan had immigrated to Ireland with her toddler son and partner just five months previously.

“I was talking to my mother [on the phone] at the time and we were remarking that a plane had hit the World Trade Centre and [saying], ‘Isn’t this terrible?’, and [calling it] a ‘tragic accident’, and all this sort of thing,” Ms Canavan told Yahoo News Australia.

“And as we were talking my father, [who] was in the background with her, said, ‘Oh my God, that’s another one’ –– meaning another plane had hit the towers.

“We actually watched it happen, not knowing that Sean was there.”

The World Trade Centre after being hit by two planes on September 11, 2001 in New York City. Source: Getty Images

Without any inkling yet of their own connection to the awful news playing out on the screen, mother and daughter, like so many others that day, tried to make sense of what was happening.

“My mother straight away, she knew it was terrorism. I was like, ‘What is she talking about? Terrorism?’ It was so foreign to us. To have something like that,” Ms Canavan said.

“Through all of the discussion of how awful it would be and how many people would be trapped... we ended up getting off the phone thinking that it didn’t affect us personally.

“It wasn’t until after I got off the phone with my mother that I thought about my brothers.”

Both Sean and Ciaran Canavan were carpenters with the same company in New York City.

And both, unbeknownst to Ms Canavan or her family at the time, were working on the same refurbishing job at the World Trade Centre.

Sean with his sister, Celine, and nephew Aidan shortly after his christening. Source: Celine Canavan / Supplied

Later that day, Ciaran had called his sister with news that didn’t seem real.

Sean had been in the second tower when it was hit. They needed to tell their parents.

Ms Canavan initially dismissed the plausibility her brother was involved in something so awful. Besides, she reasoned, it was too soon. No-one could possibly know such a thing so early on. She told her brother not to tell their elderly mother and father until they were sure.

“He said, ‘No’, and he had to break the news to me. His boss had called and said every man was accounted for. Except Sean,” she said.

“That’s how we found out.”

Ground Zero

Ms Canavan and sister Teresa, who was also located in Ireland, then spent over a week trying to get a flight home to New York City. It took seven or eight days for them to get on the soonest available flight because the terror attack involving the hijacking of planes had brought air traffic to a standstill.

The day the family eventually arrived at Ground Zero, where Sean and thousands of others were killed, Ms Canavan remembered everything as grey.

“The devastation... you couldn’t even describe it. It was just rubble,” she recalled.

“There was dust and debris and rubble. It was treacherous. They had cleared a path for us and brought us down as close as would be safe.

“I remember that day being very grey — literally as well figuratively it was overcast, everything was soggy and sopping... It was just a wasteland.”

A steel skeleton of the World Trade Centre South Tower in Ground Zero days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. Source: Getty
The rubble of the World Trade Centre smoulders after the terrorist attack that rocked NYC and the world. Source: Getty Images

It would be many months before any DNA evidence belonging to Sean was found and nearly a whole year would pass before those remains could be buried.

“It was months and months and months before we had any physical proof that he was actually there. We just knew that he was in the building that day,” his sister said.

On September 9, 2002, two days before the first anniversary of his death and the terror attack that irreversibly changed the world, Sean was buried in his native New York. That day also would’ve been his 40th birthday.

‘We’re all so different because of it’

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia on the 18th anniversary of her brother’s death from her home in Ireland, the pain was clearly still very raw for Ms Canavan, as it was for all his siblings. None of them were the same afterwards.

Sean died two days after his 39th birthday in the September 11 terror attacks. Source: Celine Canavan

“On a day-to-day basis [the grief] is not [raw]. Life has to go on. You get up and go to work every day and you take care of your family,” she said.

“But in the moments like this when you actually stop and think about the effect this has had... We’re all so different because of it.”

After losing another brother in 1985, the five surviving brothers and sisters had all been very close. But it wasn’t just a sibling thing, Sean was adored by everyone.

He was smart, fun, witty and he was kind. If there were dogs or children in a room when Sean walked into it, they all gravitated towards him.

“I think what’s most painful is how he was lost and how innocent he was... It was so savage and so vicious,” Ms Canavan said.

“Had he died of a car accident or an illness it would have been absolutely sad and devastating as well but he was such a gentle soul and for him to be taken so violently... To see his death certificate and have it say ‘homicide’ is a real gut punch.”

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