New Yorkers seek new lives after 9/11

Terrorist attacks spur some to leave city life

An aerial photo of the Chrysler Building hangs on the wall of the Design Sleep store in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Owner Michael Koveleski (at right) and his wife left New York in the wake of 9/11. The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — On 9/11, Stephen Feuerman saw the World Trade center aflame through the window of his Empire State Build­ing office and watched, transfixed, as a second fireball burst from the twin towers.

He ran through the 78th floor urging everyone to get out, thinking their skyscraper could be next. With transit hubs shut down, he couldn’t get home to his family in suburban Westchester for hours.

Shaken by the experience, the apparel broker, his wife and their two small children moved within four months to a gracious South Florida suburb they figured would be safer than New York.

So it was until this past Val­entine’s Day, when mass violence tore into Parkland, Florida, too.

“There really is no safe place,” says Feuerman, whose children survived but lost friends in the massacre that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

He still feels the family made a good move after 9/11, and he feels all the more attached to Parkland since the shooting plunged him into a whirlwind of events and advocacy on school safety and other issues.

“We’ve had a good life here,” he says. “And again, this could have happened anywhere.”

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted the Feuer­mans and an uncounted number of others to move quietly away from their lives near the hijacked-plane strikes that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pa.

Some sought safety. Some placed a new importance on living near family. Others re-evaluated what they wanted from life.

As the attacks’ 17th an­ni­versary approaches, The Associated Press caught up with some who left and asked: Have they found what they were looking for?

‘You’re only going to change your life when things are bad’

There had to be a better way to live, Michael and Margery Koveleski thought.

A furniture designer, Michael sensed emotional burnout surrounding him as he worked in lower Man­hattan after 9/11. Security measures lengthened his commute from Queens, devouring his time with the children. And two months after the terror attacks, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed near the Koveleskis’ home, killing 265 people.

The next spring they moved to Springfield, Ohio, where they had church friends.

If a better way, it wasn’t always smooth. It was initially a challenge for the Koveleskis’ children to be the new, mixed-race kids — Michael is white, while Margery has Haitian heritage — in an area less diverse than Queens. And Michael struggled to find work in the shaky post-9/11 economy.

He found it by founding his own business, Design Sleep, which sells natural latex mattresses and platform beds. It’s now in its 14th year.

“You’re only going to change your life when things are bad — or terrible,” Michael says. “I am thrilled at the way it came out.”

‘We try to echo some of what we loved’

Heather and Tom LaGarde loved New York and didn’t want to leave, even after she watched the twin towers burn from their rooftop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

But over time, “we were very unmoored by 9/11,” Heather says. “Even though I wasn’t physically harmed, just to see it that close changes your perspective. … Your priorities change.”

It felt harder and harder to stay in New York. Their nonprofit work — hers in human rights, his running a roller basketball program for neighborhood kids he’d founded after playing for the Denver Nuggets and other NBA teams — depended on fundraising that lagged in the rocky economy after the attacks. Friends moved away.

At first, the ramshackle North Carolina farm they spotted online in 2002 was only going to be an occasional getaway. But in 2004, the LaGardes moved into the farm near small-town Saxa­pahaw with two children, a few months’ consulting work for Heather and no plan beyond that.

Having no plan evolved into starting an architectural salvage company; a popular free music series and farmers’ market; a humanitarian innovation conference; and the Haw River Ballroom, a music venue in an old mill the couple helped renovate.

“We try to echo some of what we loved” in New York, Heather says, “but living in an easier, simpler, more natural place.”

‘Freedom, my country, my home’

Georgios Takos rides through northern Wyoming in the Greek Station, his food truck, with a souvenir New York license plate on the wall. It’s a reminder of the place he once thought would bring his American dream to life.

Growing up in Greece’s northern Kastoria region, Takos longed to live in the America he saw in movies. He was elated to get to New York City in 1986.

There were tears in his eyes as he left 15 years later, days after 9/11 shattered his sense of safety and the city. He headed for restaurant work in Arizona, then California, where he met his wife, Karine, a teacher.

On a visit to her home state of Montana, he found the wide-open America he’d imagined. The couple moved to nearby Powell, Wyoming.

Takos still appreciates what New York taught him about working hard.

But by leaving it, “I now have found what I was looking for,” he says. “Freedom, my country, my home!”