15 Years after Sept. 11, a Grieving Mother Visits Ground Zero

Ruth Fangman’s son, Robert John Fangman, was working as an attendant on Flight 175 on Sept. 11, 2001, when the plane struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center.


How do you deal with the grief of losing your son in the 2001 terror attacks? At the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, one mother does it the only way she can—the way her Bobby would have wanted her to.

It’s 9 o’clock on a crystalline summer morning when a black limousine glides down the alley that runs behind the tidy block of red brick row houses in Claymont where Ruth Fangman lives.

She is reminded of Sept. 11, 2001, the clear and cloudless day on which Robert John Fangman, the youngest of her seven children, perished with 3,000 others in terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists. 

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Ruth picks up her cane and makes her way toward the limo. She is 89 and recovering from recent foot surgery. She is going through her third bout with cancer of the fallopian tubes.

“I had chemo the first two times but I’m too frail for that now,” she says. “So I take a pill.”

She is headed toward the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, the former site of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Bobby, a flight attendant, was killed when United Airlines Flight 175 was flown into the South Tower, the second of two planes to erupt into fireballs that morning.

“Bobby always said he wanted to be cremated, with his ashes strewn over a large city,” his mother says. “Later, I thought, Oh my God, this is just what he wanted.”

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Ruth was headed to Philadelphia International Airport, delivering a neighbor who was scheduled to fly to Iowa.

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“On the way, the radio talked about a random, off-course plane hitting the tower,” Ruth recalls. “On the way back, they said there was a second plane, and that it wasn’t random. It was terrorism.”

By the time Ruth arrived home, her neighbor was again calling for a ride. No one would be flying to Iowa or anywhere else that day. Every flight in the United States had been canceled in response to the attacks. She needed to get back home.

Ruth immediately thought of Bobby, who had taken a job with the airline only eight months before. “We knew he was flying to California that day, but we hoped he had made a change.”

Bobby, 33, hadn’t been scheduled to work on Flight 175. He wound up filling in for Elise O’Kane, a colleague who accidentally entered an incorrect code into the computer when signing up for flights and was instead assigned to fly to Denver. “We kept calling his cellphone. He didn’t answer.”

That afternoon, Ruth was contacted by officials from United. They were coming to her home. They had bad news to share.

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Ruth has not been back to Ground Zero since the first weeks after 9/11.

“They had this fenced-in, horrible thing and a sign with the names of missing people on it,” she recalls.

Fragments of clothes clung to tree branches. Passersby cheered rescue workers. The stench of death was in the air.

On this day, just shy of 15 years later, she is traveling with her son Steve of Fair Hill, Md.; her son-in-law, Greg Kruscewski of Wilmington; and her sister and brother-in-law, Dorothy and David Smith of Ocean Pines, Md. They are accompanied by Bill Sullivan, managing director of Courtyard Newark at UD, and his wife, Rose Marie.

Bill helped to arrange the trip for his friend Steve after he mentioned he would like to take his mother to the memorial. Delaware Express donated the limo and chauffeur. 

As the limo cruises up the New Jersey Turnpike, the family reminisces about Bobby. The youngest child in a large family, he was a handful as a small boy. His mother smiles. “He was a whiny brat.”

But Bobby soon blossomed into an outgoing youth, who chatted with strangers at the grocery store. He was a good student and an avid reader. The picky eater became an adventurous gourmand. 

“He loved dancing, loved music, loved wine,” Ruth says. “No matter what, he always showed up for parties.”

During summer, he worked at Planning Factory in Wilmington, helping to set up large parties and corporate events. 

After graduating Claymont High School, Bobby enrolled at the University of Delaware. A year later, he dropped out, telling his parents, “I’m wasting your money. I’m having too much fun.”

He got a job selling phones for Verizon. He was a good salesman, made lots of money and spent most of it on traveling, to France, Mexico and other foreign destinations.

“Bobby went on a vacation to Jamaica and came back with tiny dreadlocks,” recalls Steve, 62. “He loved dying his hair. You never knew what color it was going to be the next time you saw him.”

He enjoyed traveling so much he decided he would do it for a living. He took a 50 percent pay cut to become a flight attendant.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the Fangmans and other families who had lost loved ones became part of an extended circle of grief. Ruth’s oldest son, Marty, 20 years older than his kid brother Bobby, rented a van and drove north from his home in Texas. 

Ruth and Steve donated DNA in hopes that some of Bobby’s remains would be located. Eventually, recovery workers identified a fragment of his finger and a portion of his torso, which were returned to the family.

“We did not want him interred with the unidentified people because that included the terrorists,” Steve says.

The family rejoiced when U.S. Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden, architect of the attacks. But Ruth worries that peaceful Muslims are suffering due to the acts of extremists. “You can’t blame a whole group for the actions of a few,” she says.

In the months after 9/11, the family met often with government officials and the airline as more facts were discovered. 

“We learned that the reason there were only 55 passengers on the plane was because the terrorists had bought a lot of tickets,” Ruth recalls. “They did not want to have to deal with hundreds of people.”

The Red Cross provided grief counseling. United brought the families to Boston for a special concert by Bette Midler. Ruth received free flights for life, though she is not able to do much traveling these days. Bobby’s colleagues presented her with a memorial quilt made from the uniforms of pilots and flight attendants. 

Cher Przelomski, his boss at Planning Factory, planned Bobby’s memorial service. The family expected about 350 mourners for an outdoor gathering in Chateau Country. More than 800 people turned out to drink Bobby’s favorite Merlot and listen to his signature song, “I Hope You Dance.” 

“As I was tying a bouquet of white balloons to be released by the family, one and only one escaped,” Cher recalls. “I saw it floating all by itself up to the sky and I thought, that’s Bobby. He’s free now.” 

More than 10,000 people visit the 9/11 museum each day. The Fangman party is able to bypass long lines, checking in at the window reserved for families and rescue workers.

Greg pushes Ruth in a wheelchair past charred and twisted wrecks of fire engines, through galleries of larger-than-life photographs of horrified pedestrians, eyes on the sky. Recordings of the voices of rescue workers and the crews of doomed planes play solemnly in the background.

Steve touches his mother’s shoulder. “How you doing?” he asks.

“I am dealing with it,” she replies. “Bobby would want me to.”

One part of the exhibit focuses on Bobby, who is believed to be the flight attendant who reported that Flight 175 had been hijacked, both pilots murdered and a flight attendant stabbed. 

The group heads up to the Family Room, a private sanctuary open only to those who lost loved ones in the attacks. The walls are papered with fading photographs and letters written to those who perished. There’s a picture of Bobby in a display dedicated to the United attendants of Flight 175 and Flight 93, which was downed by terrorists near Shanksville, Pa., when the crew and passengers attempted to retake the plane.

After a few minutes of reflection, the group heads outside to the memorial. Ruth reaches up from her wheelchair and silently touches the letters of her son’s name, inscribed on a bronze parapet surrounding the South Tower Memorial pool. 

On the ride back to Claymont, she reflects on what Bobby would be doing today, had his life not ended so suddenly. He would be 48 now, with enough seniority to lay claim to the European flights that were his goal.

“He would be traveling, enjoying his life, dancing and drinking wine,” she says. “And he would definitely still be flying. Bobby loved flying.”

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