Kathy Ashton is relieved her son was not alone when the World Trade Center collapsed. Though Thomas Ashton's body has not been found, his family has chosen to accept that he died that day, rather than endure the continued agony of hope.
By Friday, after providing DNA samples, filing a missing person's report and exhausting a two-week search for some sign of Thomas Ashton, his parents took on the dreaded task of applying for their 21-year-old son's death certificate.
"We had to say, it's over. And how do you say that about your child? How do you give up hope?" said his mother, Kathy. Ashton's father, John, had frantically searched city hospitals after the terror attack on the World Trade Center. An uncle, who is a retired New York firefighter, and a cousin ran to the rubble that day and started digging.
At his home in Woodside, Queens, relatives and friends were fixated on television, watching the tragedy unfold on the screen to the simultaneous interruptions of their cellular phones ringing.
Last Sunday, Ashton's two sisters, Colleen, 25, and Mary, 18; and Jackie, his girlfriend of 6 years, gathered with his parents to try to come to grips with the reality that the introspective and athletic young man would not be found alive, if at all.
"It was really living in a limbo. We were grieving, but we couldn't grieve; we were hoping, but we couldn't hope," his mother said. "I still expect him to walk through the door at any minute."
On Thursday, family members were sifting through photos to feature at a two-day "memorial wake" they are planning for Ashton next week. Devout Catholics, the family plans to follow the memorial on Oct. 6 with a memorial mass.
Sept. 10 was Ashton's first day at electricians school. On his second day on the job as an apprentice with Local 3 in Manhattan, he was sent to the 95th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower to work alongside an electrician, and that's where he was when the first plane hit.
Ashton was a political science major at St. Francis College in Brooklyn until May, when he announced to his parents that he was leaving college to become an electrician.
"He was determined to do this because he was impatient and really just wanted to start his life," his mother said. "He and his girlfriend were looking forward to a future. He wanted to start making money and have a goal. The electrical industry gave him a goal to shoot for."
The announcement was met with some objections from his parents, who urged him to finish working toward his bachelor's degree. Following through with his promise to manage both endeavors, he had registered for college the night before the terror attack.
This week, Ashton's mother met her son's coworkers for the first time. She said she found comfort attending a memorial service for the electrician working with Ashton on the day of the attack.
"I'm glad Tommy was with him at that time," Kathy Ashton said. "I was so upset thinking that he was alone when this happened."
Profile courtesy of THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.
Sharing Old Memories
It was home movies night on Monday, Sept. 10, at the Ashton household in Woodside, Queens. No one is quite sure why the family decided to break out the old videotapes after so many years. But there they sat, glued to the screen: Thomas; his sisters, Colleen and Mary; and their parents, John and Kathy Ashton.
There were a lot of laughs, especially at the scenes of Thomas, barely out of a diaper, whipping the Frisbee at his father with the precision of someone 10 times his age. Monday was also Thomas's first day at electrician's school, part of his apprenticeship with Local 3 in Manhattan. The second day on the job, Thomas, 21, was sent to the 95th floor of the north tower.
''We hope that wherever he is, he is able to have those memories from the home movies in his mind,'' Colleen Ashton said. ''It was special that we were able to share that time together.''
Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on September 21, 2001.