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Two Delawareans Reflect on Lingering Grief From the 9/11 Attacks

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Photo by Tim Foley

On the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, two Delawareans share how they’ve coped with losing a loved one.

On September 10, 2001, Willy Sezna, of Greenville, opened an email from his brother: “104 floors up, looking at the whole world,” Deeg wrote. “Ours for the taking.”

In true big brother fashion, he told Willy to stop being a jerk to their dad, thanked him for taking him to the train station the day before, and signed off.

It would be the last time Willy would ever hear from his older brother. Less than 24 hours later, a Boeing 767 would hit Deeg’s office building 20 floors below where he stood typing that email. He wouldn’t make it out alive.

Davis Grier Sezna Jr.—known as “Deeg” to his friends and family—had moved to Manhattan just a few weeks before, taking a job at Sandler O’Neill in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He had been working there for six days.

The New York Times described Deeg as someone who “showed up for work early, insisted on wearing business suits in an office where business casual was the attire du jour and refused to call his boss by his first name.” Whenever Willy talks about his big brother, a mischievous smile crosses his face. “His passion for life was contagious—everything was full tilt—and it shows every time I think of him.”

Willy describes Deeg as a tenacious force, both gregarious and fiercely competitive. In the business world, he was smart and determined and had an endless curiosity that kept everyone around him guessing as to what he’d accomplish next.

His strength of character is what Willy admired most. “He just always knew who he was and he never wavered from that. He was big on loyalty, always keeping me in check about staying true to myself and our friends and family. I hear him in the back of my head every single day: ‘What do you stand for, Willy?’”

Twenty years later and the weight of the loss is still heavy. Memories of 9/11 hover around his edges; there are still days where his grief almost swallows him whole.

“You have to understand, I didn’t just lose my brother that day…” he says. “We lost everything.”

It wasn’t the first time the sun had been ripped out of Willy’s sky. On July 1, 2000, his younger brother Teddy passed away in a boating accident. His parents’ marriage wouldn’t survive the next year after Deeg was killed.

“Everything changed, but nothing changed,” Willy says. “Our lives were torn apart by an act of terrorism, but the world kept turning. 9/11 was unique in that people lost loved ones on the world’s stage for everyone to see and share in our grief. But time never stops, and people move on. We were still standing in the figurative rubble, sifting through the ashes, trying to figure out how to navigate the world without my brothers while the rest of the world went back to work.”

Looking back on the last two decades, Willy admits that he looked for an escape route instead of facing his trauma head on. He became the life of the party, drinking to forget, drinking to numb the pain. Drinking until he couldn’t anymore.

Jimmy Dunne, a close family friend who hired Deeg at Sandler O’Neill, has been instrumental in his sobriety. “I knew if I told him I needed help,” Willy says, “he would fly to…wherever I was and he would force me to do the work.”

9/11-anniversary

Two decades after a series of coordinated attacks on the United States by terrorist group Al-Qaeda, two Delawareans who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center reflect on how they’ve coped with the grief. Above, an illustration of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero in New York City./Photo by Tim Foley

And that’s exactly what he did.

Willy has been sober for almost three years. For the first time in as long as he can remember, he’s certain of his place in the world. He is a doting husband and father and a partner at his company, and he sits on the board of a sober group called The Phoenix helping others find hope in all the darkness.

There are still hard days, of course. It’s become more apparent as he’s gotten older just how much he lost. “My kids will never have uncles, you know? And not just uncles, but Deeg and Teddy as uncles. If you marinate in that too long, it’ll break you. I had to turn what was holding me down into fuel. I worked incredibly hard to get sober, and it saved my life. The people of AA saved my life. I will forever be grateful for the program.

“As for 9/11, it will always be a hard day,” Willy says. “You’ll never hear me tell anyone that this gets easier, because it doesn’t. For those people who are able to get together and celebrate, I applaud them; I just have my own process.”

The anniversary has always stood as a stark reminder of everything Willy and his family lost that day. His mom makes the annual pilgrimage to read Deeg’s name at Ground Zero. Willy went once and hasn’t been back. But this year, he looks to that day as a reminder of how lucky he is to be alive.

“I’m still here. We survived. My wife, Aubrey, and I had our first child last year, a daughter named Lily. My experiences have given me an incredible perspective. I’ve been humbled to a point where I’m so appreciative of the small stuff.

“It’s just not enough to never forget,” Willy says. “You have to live with purpose.” Like Deeg.

When Jill San Phillip Abbott heard Deeg’s name for the first time in the days following 9/11, she was surprised her dad hadn’t mentioned it before. Michael San Phillip was a seasoned veteran on Wall Street, working his way up to a vice president position at Sandler O’Neill.

“My dad was old-school Wall Street,” Jill says. “Any time there was a connection to Delaware, he would call me from the trading desk. ‘You know this kid Sezna?’ But that never happened.”

It wasn’t until later that she realized that there were two sides to the firm: Deeg was on the institutional side, her father on the trading side, facing away from WTC 1.

Jill was six months pregnant when her PR director at Winterthur came bursting into her office with the news that the twin towers had been attacked.

That’s impossible, Abbott thought. “I called my dad. No answer. I tried my sister, who was in WTC 3, catty-corner to my dad’s building. No answer. The market was about to open, so I thought maybe they were busy.”

There were no news alerts on cell phones back then or websites to refresh over and over again. At 10 a.m., Jill’s mother told her that her father’s tower had collapsed.

She thought, Daddy’s alive, we’ll find him and everything will go back to normal. So certain they’d find her dad alive, she and her husband departed for Manhattan, packing only one overnight bag.

That one night turned into a month.

Twelve people were missing from their parish at Mt. Carmel. Father Ron went door to door that first night, inviting each family to a special “Mass for the Missing.” It turned into a nightly event for Abbott’s family and many others. It was a safe space amid the chaos. That tradition continues today, on each anniversary of 9/11.

For two weeks Jill held onto the hope they’d find her father alive. “Daddy was very strong—both physically and in personality. I don’t think you can be on Wall Street and not have that confidence. He was a fiercely competitive athlete, and I just couldn’t wrap my brain around him not getting out of there.”

Eventually, her focus shifted from finding her father alive to finding his remains. But the only thing they’d ever find of Michael San Phillip was his wallet. Inside were pictures of his daughters.

To San Phillip, family came first, no matter what. No matter what was happening at work, he’d be on that 5 o’clock train home every night, in time for dinner. “He led by example,” Jill recalls, teaching both the value of hard work and the importance of family.

Four months after the attacks, on the very same day his wallet was found, San Phillip’s namesake, Michele “Mikki” Abbott was born.

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