Commentary

Ten years later, 'it hasn't healed at all'

For the family of ex-Rye High football star Chris Mello, there's no such thing as closure

Updated: September 6, 2011, 4:38 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Ten years later, healing is not an option for a man with a broken heart, not when Doug Mello once held the remains of his 25-year-old son in the palm of his hand.

A piece of Chris Mello's vertebrae. "Something no bigger than a silver dollar," his father said Monday.

He placed the bone fragment back inside a plastic bag, sealed it, and buried it at the Westchester County memorial site for his Chris, a former Rye High School football star, Princeton rugby player and venture analyst who had shown some early promise in the boxing ring.

Recovery workers at the World Trade Center pile didn't just discover Chris Mello's keys, clothing, the framework of his laptop, and a copy of a plane ticket he'd used a couple of weeks before he boarded American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston's Logan International Airport on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Chris Mello
Chris Mello

Those workers also allowed a father one last physical connection with his son. "At least I got that," Doug Mello said. "Macabre as it might sound, thousands of families didn't get a chance to touch the person they lost."

Doug and Ellen Mello lost so much when Chris boarded Flight 11, received an upgrade to a business class seat that put him right in the company of five terrorists, and died when his plane was used as al Qaeda's first 9/11 missile launched against iconic monuments to American might.

So with the 10th anniversary of the attacks inspiring a nation to ponder whether time has eased its unspeakable pain, grieving fathers and mothers are the most credible voices to consult. They suffered more than anyone, as no parent is supposed to survive a child.

"In my case," Doug Mello said by phone, "it hasn't healed at all. Even the morning after bin Laden was killed, when I was talking with my son J.D., we certainly felt better that a notoriously awful person was no longer walking the earth. But at the same time that morning, Chris wasn't there, and that's something we'll have to deal with for the rest of our lives."

Chris was a 195-pound tight end and linebacker at Rye High. He was strong enough to be named team captain and, in 1993, tenacious enough to be named the outstanding defensive player in Rye's New York state championship loss at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, despite giving away 80 pounds to the Caledonia-Mumford player matched against him.

"Chris was the epitome of what high school coaches want in a student-athlete," said his head coach at Rye, Dino Garr. "A great student, a strong and quiet leader, someone who people naturally followed. If he could've done anything to stop that disaster from happening on 9/11, he would've been right there in the cockpit doing it."

Of this Doug Mello has no doubt. Federal agents allowed family members of victims to listen to the calls made to and from the four hijacked planes, and Mello reviewed each and every one of them. He came away from the tapes believing that some on board Flight 11 were convinced the plane was being hijacked to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

One passenger, Daniel Lewin, an Internet entrepreneur and former Israeli commando, was reportedly stabbed at the outset of the attack. "And then [the terrorists] moved everybody to the back of the plane, and shielded them from the windows," Mello said. "They thought they were going to JFK.

"If you look at the manifest there were a lot of jock types on that plane, a lot of very physical guys. But they were totally surprised, and I still wrestle with that. The lone thing my son wasn't was timid; even in the face of death he would've thrown those guys aside. I don't care if they had box cutters, Chris wouldn't have backed away from that whatsoever. But they were the first flight and they had no advance warning."

The passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 did, and a number of them -- including a national judo champ from New Jersey, Jeremy Glick -- battled the terrorists for control of a plane that crashed into a rural Pennsylvania field.

The mass murder of innocents that Tuesday morning changed everyone forever. Nearly a decade later, the extermination of Osama bin Laden brought a measure of peace and reassurance to the 9/11 survivors, but it didn't bring closure.

If only because nothing can.

Doug Mello had been a phone company executive on the World Trade Center scene after the 1993 bombing of the towers; he was the executive who made the decision to keep open phone lines to people trapped in their offices while colleagues argued that the collapsing system needed to be shut down.

Mello worked with the FBI and firefighters and cops to restore the same towers that would burn and fall the day his son died. More than 3,000 people attended Chris' wake and funeral, and his jersey number, 89, was retired at Rye.

Now an award in Mello's name is given to a member of each team at the annual Rye-Harrison game, and a scholarship in Mello's name is presented to the football player who best emulates Chris' ideals at Westchester's annual Golden Dozen banquet. The fitness center at the Rye YMCA was dedicated in Chris' honor, and the Christopher D. Mello Memorial Annual Golf Outing raises money for indigent one-parent children.

In the Rye locker closest to the coaches' room, Garr keeps a shrine to Mello's memory. His players touch Chris' jersey before they take the field for the Harrison game.

"Not one day has passed where I haven't thought of him," Garr said.

Much has changed for Chris Mello's father since that fateful day. He's witnessed the birth of J.D.'s two healthy and happy children, and he's witnessed his beloved Red Sox winning two World Series titles.

His Roman Catholic faith, hardened by the Jesuits at his alma mater, Boston College? It was shaken to the core. The Boston College president, Reverend William Leahy, acknowledged to Mello that there's no three-credit theology course that covers a tragedy so profound.

Mello lost some faith in the very federal agents he assisted after the '93 bombing, too, but the bin Laden killing brought him back. "It demonstrated to me how indefatigable they were in trying to do the right thing," Mello said. "I told J.D., 'Maybe your two children and my grandchildren won't have to face what we faced with Chris.'"

A former lacrosse player at Princeton, J.D. said it was unlikely any family members would make a pilgrimage to Ground Zero on Sunday. To the loved ones left behind, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks isn't any different from the 8th, or the 6th.

"We live with the sadness every single day," Doug Mello said.

The father of one of the first Americans killed on 9/11 understands why time hasn't eased his pain, and why it never will.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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