Terror, tragedy, heartbreak and healing: How 4 Canadians are building a positive legacy 20 years after 9/11

From survivor's guilt to honouring the memory of lost loved ones, the attack's effects are still keenly felt two decades later.

From survivor's guilt to honouring the memory of lost loved ones, the attack's effects are still keenly felt

Remembering escape and heartbreak 20 years after 9/11

2 years ago
Duration 8:08
Twenty years later, CBC’s Ioanna Roumeliotis catches up with two Canadians affected by the Sept. 11 attacks. Ron DiFrancesco, who was among the last people to escape the towers, and Kimmy Chedel, whose husband Frank Doyle wasn’t so lucky.

Twenty years after the attacks of 9/11, four Canadians who were affected that day tell CBC News about the legacy they are building out of the tragedy that profoundly altered their lives. Here are their stories:

Ron DiFrancesco

Ron DiFrancesco bears an extraordinary badge and burden. 

Toronto resident DiFrancesco is thought to be the last survivor to make it out of the World Trade Centre on Sept. 11, 2001.

He was at work on the 84th floor of the south tower when he heard an explosion from the other tower. DiFrancesco was leaving his firm's trading room when the second plane hit his building. 

"The right wing sliced right through our trading room … I got knocked flying and debris came down on us," he said.

DiFrancesco escaped through a burning stairwell, and when he made it to the ground level the only way out was through the concourse. He was running as the building was coming down. The last thing he remembers seeing was a fireball.

Ron DiFrancesco, seen in Toronto with his wife Mary, describes his narrow escape as the Twin Towers collapsed in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

He ended up in the hospital with a broken bone in his back, and second- and third-degree burns on much of his body. His contact lenses had melted to his eyes. It would take months to physically recover. 

DiFrancesco and his family moved back home to Toronto, and while life moved on, he says at first he couldn't. "Why did I survive when so many of my colleagues didn't? How did I get out when they didn't?"

DiFrancesco says it was hard on his family, especially his wife Mary, who took care of their children and home while he recovered. 

"I was blank for a long while … I was void of life, I guess, I was just existing."

Mary DiFrancesco says her gratitude has helped her get through the tragedy. 

"I felt incredibly grateful that he was alive, that he got out of the towers. And I promised myself then that I would try to be worthy of the gift of his life."

But they both walk a fine line between gratitude and guilt.

WATCH | Ron DiFrancesco discusses his feelings about surviving the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers with CBC's Ioanna Roumeliotis:

Ron DiFrancesco discusses surviving the Twin Towers collapse

2 years ago
Duration 0:25
Ron DiFrancesco, thought to be the last survivor to make it out of the World Trade Center in New York City after the attack on Sept. 11, 2001, discusses 'survivor's guilt' with CBC's Ioanna Roumeliotis.

Focusing on charity work, and raising awareness about mental health and speaking about it, has helped. 

"If I talk about it, I feel a bit better after I do a talk," Ron said.

"Everybody struggles with their mental health at some point in time, and what can we do to help make it better for people, for ourselves?"

Both say that for all the tragedy surrounding 9/11, they also saw the good in people on that day, and in the compassion and care and support they received from their community.

For DiFrancesco, he says he was blessed with 20 more years of life, "I was given a gift. We were given a gift."

Kimmy Chedel

Kimmy Chedel remembers screaming in horror while holding her two-year old daughter in her arms as she watched the south tower of the World Trade Center collapse on live television. 

Her 39-year-old husband Frank Doyle had phoned from his 89th-floor office in the same tower just moments before. Chedel recalls every word of that last call, especially what he said just before he hung up.

"He says, 'you need to promise me every day for the rest of their lives that you tell Zoe and Garrett how much I love them.' And it didn't register at the time, you know, that he was saying goodbye."

Kimmy Chedel, right, and her daughter Zoe moved home to Quebec from New Jersey after Kimmy's husband Frank Doyle was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

A few months later, Chedel moved back home to Quebec from their home in New Jersey to raise her two small children, and she committed to keeping their father's memory alive. 

Doyle was an avid athlete, and for years friends and family gathered to hold triathlons in his name. Team Frank has now shifted its focus to fundraising in order to build preschools in remote parts of South Africa. 

Chedel's son Garrett and daughter Zoe are closely involved in the schools. Zoe, now 22, says she is grateful for the memories her mother has helped build of a father she barely had a chance to know.  

"When we're remembering him, it's not always sad," she said. "It's incredible to see how it changes so many people's lives, and how it's come from something so painful and tragic but has turned into this."

Twenty years later, Chedel says she's proud of how far she and her children have come, too, but at times, she still has a hard time making sense of the story that became her life.

WATCH | Kimmy Chedel on creating a positive legacy in memory of her husband Frank Doyle:

Kimmy Chedel on creating a positive legacy in memory of her husband Frank Doyle

2 years ago
Duration 0:30
Kimmy Chedel talks about creating a positive legacy in memory of her husband Frank Doyle, who was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City.

Chedel and her children have often returned to New York to attend 9/11 ceremonies. Wherever they are that day, she says, the ritual is very similar.

She wakes up and tunes in to the ceremony. 

"All I want is to be connected to Ground Zero," she said. "I want to hear them read his name."

Ellen Judd

For Christine Egan's friends and family, including her partner Ellen Judd in Winnipeg, doing something positive in her memory has helped them to heal.

The Winnipeg resident was visiting her brother Michael in his office in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. They were both killed in the attack.

Egan was in town to take care of her nephew, says Judd, so her brother and sister-in-law could celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Judd says Egan was a very caring and uplifting person. "She had tremendous energy, love, and life."

Ellen Judd holds a photo of her partner Christine Egan, who was killed in the World Trade Center attack. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Egan's passion was working in Canada's North. A nurse practitioner and an educator originally from England, she spent many years in communities such as Iqaluit, Cape Dorset, Pond Inlet, Kivalliq, and Sanikiluaq.

Before 9/11, she was working with Health Canada to develop community health programs in First Nations and Inuit communities. 

Soon after the 9/11 tragedy, Egan's friends and family started a scholarship in her memory for Nunavut Inuit students studying nursing.

Christine Egan seen in the early years of her career working as a nurse in Pond Inlet. (Ellen Judd)

Judd says that the scholarship is an expression of Egan's spirit of helping people and her commitment to lifelong learning, and "it's a way in which she is still present in our lives."

For Judd, the scholarship is also a reminder of the goodness in the world despite the tragedy of Sept. 11. 

"[It] fits with what she would have wanted so perfectly … In the context of 9/11, so much of it is just dreadful, and I think to affirm Chris' life and values is a good thing for all of us to be doing."

Maureen Basnicki

On such a public day and on such a milestone anniversary, Maureen Basnicki says she is reluctant to share her private grief. 

"As far as remembering the wonderful husband I had, I had 20 years with him and now 20 years without him. I choose another day to think of happy memories."

Maureen Basnicki's husband Ken was killed in the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. 'I didn't lose my husband. He was taken from me,' she said. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Toronto resident Ken Basnicki was in New York to attend a business meeting when he was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. The horror of that day still echoes in his widow's voice two decades later.

"People say, 'I'm sorry for your loss.' I didn't lose my husband," Basnicki said. "He was taken from me."

Over the years, Basnicki has become a vocal advocate for victims of terrorism and lobbied for Sept. 11 to be recognized as a national day of service, to honour the values she says were attacked that day. Eventually, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks the day was marked as such by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but Basnicki says the day merits more awareness.

Basnicki holds a New York keychain. She said recognizing Sept. 11 as a national day of service would honour the values she says were attacked that day. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Basnicki says the generosity and kindness shown by regular Canadians to her and other families was comforting, and she points to how residents of Gander, N.L., opened their hearts and their homes to stranded passengers whose flights were grounded that day. 

She hopes that inspires more Canadians to keep paying it forward with community work or simple acts of everyday kindness, especially during the pandemic, such as buying a front-line worker a coffee or thanking a grocery clerk.

Basnicki says she also hopes raising awareness on Sept. 11 and beyond will educate young people in Canada who don't know about 9/11. "It's a way to say it was an attack on our values and this is a way to celebrate our values.

"The best legacy to leave for my husband is a living legacy for future generations. So that our children and grandchildren will grow up knowing that something horrible did happen that day, but be proud and grateful for the reaction that came from everyday Canadians."

Watch full episodes of The National on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.