WESTLAKE, Ohio — Twenty years removed from one of the darkest day in American history, friends and loved ones of Christina Ryook are still grappling with with her sudden loss and the ongoing legacy she left behind.
Ryook, 25, took the elevators up to the 104th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center on that crisp, picturesque day on Sept. 11, 2001. She did so not knowing it would be her last. Her remains weren’t found for another year.
Although her heart is buried at Westlake’s Evergreen Cemetery, her soul remains entombed at Ground Zero. Each and every year that has passed since the terrorist attacks — one, five, 10, 15, 20 — still feels like the day it happened, her family said.
The phrase “time heals all wounds” couldn’t be any further from the truth.
“First year, second year, third year, fourth year, even the 20th year, it’s the same to me. It’s a kind of a sad day,” said Dae Jin Ryook, Christina’s father. “It’s a sad day. It’s a really sad day.”
Christina was Ryook’s only daughter — a forever ‘daddy’s little girl.’ Every day he thinks of her; every day he misses her.
September 11— that day— doesn’t ask for permission nor does it come with an introduction. That day will always be the family’s darkest.
“Sometimes it’s a windy day like today, she’s whispering to me,” Ryook said as he peered over to his daughter’s gravesite.
Ryook sits on a bench dedicated to his daughter’s memory. He and his wife had just placed purple flowers at her headstone — her favorite color. Christina is both everywhere and nowhere.
Christina came to the United States with her parents at the age of four. Quickly, she was ushered into a circle of first cousins. More quickly, the first cousins became more like siblings.
“Losing somebody as important as Christina, somebody that impactful on your life, I just think in some way it’s frozen in time in your memory,” said Caroline Brosnan, Christina’s first cousin. “In the same way, I think she’s given all of us her own gift to be able to move forward even though she’s not present with us.”
And Christina's gift to Brosnan wouldn't come until several years after 9/11.
Brosnan, then a mother of five boys, had long wished to have a daughter. Her wish was granted when her daughter, Melanie, now a fifth grader at Chagrin Falls, was born. About a year after Melanie's birth, Brosnan said she was visited by Christina in an unusually vivid dream.
"She said, 'oh I see your kids are doing well and I see that you now have a daughter," Brosnan recalled." And I said, 'yeah, I do, she’s really special.' [Christina] looked me square in the face and said, 'that was my gift.' I woke up from that dream and thought to myself, 'that’s pretty incredible because Melanie's birthday is on 4/9/2011. That was the reason why we put Christina as her middle name."
Four-nine-eleven. For nine eleven.
Long before Christina was ferried up by elevator to the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, the 25-year-old had been an exemplary student at Westlake High School. Clubs, concert band and civic organizations are where her benevolence and her effervescence truly shined.
After graduating with honors, Christina enrolled at the University of Michigan where her star burned even brighter.
Those two titles — Westlake High School graduate and University of Michigan alum — are vital pieces of her legacy now.
“To meet Mr. Ryook is to love Mr. Ryook. You hear it in his voice how much Christina and her legacy means,” said Paul Wilson, the former high school principal at Westlake that has since taken a district administration position. “We want the family to feel special and we want to make sure that Westlake honors Christina.”
Westlake High doesn’t resemble the school that Christina graduated from; it has since been rebuilt. The school library, however, pays homage to Christina. A series of stories about immigrants; photos and artwork depicting that terrible autumn day and, of course, a plaque that recognizes the recipients of a special scholarship set up in Christina’s honor.
Since 2004, a foundation set up in Christina’s name has provided $4,000 scholarships to Westlake High School graduates that are to attend the University of Michigan. As irony would have it, the four students that received the scholarship in 2020 hadn’t yet been born on Sept. 11, 2001.
Time has a way of reminding us of its permanence.
“[The students] know the gravity of that event. They know what it means to the family,” Wilson said.
Twenty years of confusion and coping with grief has provided the Ryook family some small semblance of clarity.
She’s gone — but never far.
“She's whispering to me,” Ryook said. “She’s saying, “Hi dad, hi dad. I’m doing alright. Don’t worry.”