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Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 2001/ 16 Teves 5762

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports

Real heroes need no fame -- YOU'VE heard the names of the firemen and police officers who died on Sept. 11, read the bios of men and women who died at their desks or aboard hijacked airplanes, listened to the eulogies of the famous among them.

One name you've probably never heard, however, is Eileen Stanley. She wasn't known to a nation, was neither famous nor infamous. She made no one's list. Yet she was as much a victim of 9-11 as anyone and was at least a hero, if not a saint.

For Stanley, a psychiatric nurse who lived on Staten Island, died as a result of the terrorist attacks by literally working herself to death helping others at Ground Zero.

I didn't know Stanley but learned her story a few days before Christmas while standing in the checkout line at Best Buy in Columbia, S.C. It was one of those random encounters that remind you how we're all connected, even to the stranger behind you in line.

The stranger behind me was a tall fellow wearing a U.S. Postal Service uniform and a New York Fire Department baseball cap. I looked him up and down and said, "Well, which is it? Postal or fire department?"

He said he was a postal worker but was wearing the cap to honor his wife's cousin, Eileen, who had died as a result of the terrorist attacks. Then he told me a story that haunted me, prompting me to call his wife a few days later for details. This is Eileen Stanley's story.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Eileen was driving on the Brooklyn Bridge en route to work when she, along with other commuters, saw the first plane crash into the first World Trade Center tower. She stopped her car, got out and became part of a crowd of strangers who held each other and sobbed as the second plane hit and then as the two towers collapsed.

In those moments, everyone's life changed, but none more than Eileen's. "She went into high gear," said her first cousin, Debbie Harbison of Elgin, S.C.

Each day thereafter, Eileen went first to her hospital job, working with drug addicts and alcoholics, then afterward to a triage unit at Ground Zero. She worked night and day, getting by on three hours of sleep, until four days later, she dropped dead of a heart attack at age 43.

Her intense dedication following the terrorist attacks surprised no one who knew her. Eileen was a recovering alcoholic and a former drug addict who had grown up in a New York City housing project with a schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic father.

Eighteen years ago, she got sober, went straight, returned to school and had worked tirelessly ever since to help others -- drunks, junkies, stray animals, the homeless. Her compassion was both a gift and a curse.

On Sept. 16, Eileen was headed back to Ground Zero for one more day before leaving for vacation with her extended Irish-Catholic family, many of them New York City cops and firemen, when her husband insisted she get some rest. Eileen protested but finally relented and climbed back into bed. When her husband came home from work, he found her dead.

Eileen's life was full of ironies. She had barely escaped death as an addict, yet died when she was still young, sober and most fulfilled. Three other members of her family were in the World Trade Center towers when they were hit and survived, while Eileen, far from the attacks, perished because she couldn't leave Ground Zero.

If ever there were a metaphor for these difficult times, Eileen Stanley is it. She rose from the ashes of a miserable life, recovered through spiritual strength and an indomitable will, and made life better for the less fortunate. Of such we should all be made.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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© 2001, Tribune Media Services