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A Town Moves On From the Middle of the 9/11 Tragedy

Trees and tract homes trace through Middletown, N.J., a town of 69,000 people and dotted with a community center, local government buildings, libraries, and small shopping centers. The similarities of this town to thousands of others around the country are evident. But one landmark sets it apart—a stone arch in the center of a field that reads, “World Trade Center Memorial Gardens.”

Municipal Building, Middletown Township, NJ
Source: middletownnj.org
Municipal Building, Middletown Township, NJ

Middletown lost 37 residents on Sept, 11, 2001, more than any other community. Most of these residents were middle-class men and women, who worked in the financial district and had families waiting for them at home.

Ten years later, it’s a changed town. After surviving the grief and intensity that cloaked Middletown in the days following Sept. 11, some residents moved away, no longer willing to cope with the memories. Others, however, threw themselves into charities and other methods of keeping the memories alive.

The Memorial Garden, which sits across from the train station and arts center, is the crucible of their memories.

“This area has a lot of significance, because so many citizens work in the financial area and a lot of them took the train to lower Manhattan,” says Middletown Mayor Tony Fiore. “It’s the last place they were before they left town that day.”

As you walk across the street from the train station, under the arch onto a swerving path with a rooftop of trees, you pass 37 memorial stones with the names of each Middletown citizen killed in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“This serves as the memorial for a lot of the families, because they were unable to recover remains,” Fiore says.

September 11: Ten Years Later - A CNBC Special Report
September 11: Ten Years Later - A CNBC Special Report

“I was probably a mile and a half away from Jersey City,” that day, Fiore says. “I had a pretty clear view. It’s a day I remember like yesterday.”

In the weeks and months following, author Gail Sheehy contacted the family members of the 37 who died, and wrote a book, “Middletown America,” about the lives of those families and the struggles they encountered after the tragedy. Eventually, the media attention became a burden for remaining residents.

“Middletown is a small town and some people made the decision to move, more for their children,” says Maureen Fitzsimmon, program director at Catholic Charities.

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She said the overwhelming amount of media attention families faced only served as a constant reminder of what happened, and made it that much harder for them to cope with their losses. But some families decided to create hope out of tragedy by commemorating their loved ones.

“When we lose a loved one, we have a burning desire to memorialize that person in some way,” she says.

The 9/11 Memorial in Middletown, NY.
Photo: Kaitlyn Bigica for CNBC
The 9/11 Memorial in Middletown, NY.

One of the charities, the Kenneth F.Tietjen Memorial Foundation, emerged from the loss of Middletown resident and Port Authority police officer Ken Tietjen, who took a taxi to the World Trade Center, where he died rescuing people.

Laurie Tietjen, his sister, said her family used money that had been donated to them to buy bikes for less fortunate children, just as her brother had done during his lifetime.

After the bike charities’ success, the family created an educational program for underprivileged children.

“We go into schools where kids are failing out and we pair them with a volunteer police officer,” Tietjen says.

The program motivates students to go to school and to increase scores in creative ways. If a student has a history of cutting classes, the program offers to send that student to football camp if they agree to keep up their attendance.

The Tietjen Foundation also hosts events to raise money and to bring community members together. On Sept. 10, 2011, they will pair up with the Middletown police department to host a charity ball for more than 600 people. The event will include an auction with memorabilia from Middletown resident Bon Jovi and from Bruce Springsteen, who lives nearby. The ball honors those who lost their lives on 9/11.

“Middletown was one of the hardest hit,” Tietjen says. “We want to remember the people who were killed.”