NEW YORK -- She has made fragile peace with her husband's death. She knows he is gone for good. For the rest of her life, she will never see his face or touch his cheek or smell the sweat from a long day's work in the creases of his neck.
On some days, on good days -- and this depends on her point of view -- Veronica Hynes can accept that. On other days, which sometime bleed into many days, she cannot.
But if she pushes a button, she can still hear his voice, more familiar to her than her own. Sounding calm but forceful. Calling her "honey" one last time. Saying he loved her. Knowing he would soon face death.
She has played that phone message hundreds of times since Sept. 11. She has made cassette tapes of it and saved them for her children. Like others left behind, she has found small but real solace in the voice of someone now dead. There is an unintended benefit in modern technology: Voice mail comforts the living.
On Sept. 11, Fire Capt. Walter Hynes waited for the sound of the beep. "Honey, it's real bad," he said into the phone just before he rolled out of Ladder Co. 13 at 85th Street and Lexington Avenue, and headed downtown to the World Trade Center. The second hijacked passenger jet had just roared into the south tower.
"I don't know if we'll make it out. I want to tell you that I love you and I love the kids."
His wife does not listen to it as often as she used to, though now she can listen without weeping. "It makes me feel good," she says. "He was thinking about us in those final moments. That gives me great comfort."
And inspires awe at the calm courage of everyday people imprisoned by wounded skyscrapers and in hijacked planes who picked up a cell phone or a desk phone or the plastic GTE receiver jammed into the airline seat in front of them, and used it to say farewell.
Those who reached a person were blessed with chances to receive and to give comfort. But those who talked to machines left a double-edged legacy, one that simultaneously warms the heart and slices the soul.
Of all five senses, none save smell evokes a more visceral, emotional response than hearing, researchers say. Think of the transporting power of a certain melody or the life-affirming joy of hearing a child laugh deep and hard. Then multiply it exponentially.
"It's such a powerful, powerful thing," says radio producer Nikki Silva of the Sonic Memorial Project, a repository for audio memories of the World Trade Center. So far, the project has collected hundreds of tapes donated by the public containing everything from the sound of elevator doors closing in the 110-story towers to weddings held at Windows on the World.
"Photographs freeze a moment. But when you hear a person's voice, they're breathing, they're alive in there," Silva says.
Psychologist C.C. Clauss-Ehlers counsels families torn apart by Sept. 11. It is not only the sound of a loved one's voice, she says, but the circumstances under which it was recorded.
"It is a real, live contact from someone who is no longer living. And it comes," she says, "from a moment in time when that person knew the world was coming to an end for them."
Melissa Hughes was trapped on the 101st floor. "Sean, it's me," she said to the answering machine, losing a battle against tears. "I just wanted to let you know I love you and I'm stuck in this building in New York."
Her husband, asleep in their bed in San Francisco where it was just after 6 a.m., never heard the phone.
"A plane hit the building, or bomb went off. We don't know, but there's lots of smoke and I just wanted you to know that I love you always. Bye."
They had been married for one year.
On the morning of Sept. 11, Larry Courtney had just walked into his midtown brokerage when a co-worker rushed over.
Courtney began checking his voice mail, half-listening to his excited colleague, registering the words explosion, fire and the World Trade Center. "I didn't understand," Courtney says. "I'd just gotten off the subway."
There was a message from Eugene Clark, his lover of 14 years, who spoke calmly. "Don't worry," Clark said. "The plane hit the other building. We are evacuating."
And then Courtney did something he will forever mourn. He punched the number 7 on his telephone keypad, deleting the last words Clark spoke to him.
"I regretted having done it within two seconds," he says. "I did it without thinking. I had no idea what he was talking about."
Television monitors on the trading floor soon slapped him with more information than he wanted to accept.
He wishes many things. That he had been at work when Clark called. That he could have told him to hightail it out of there. That he had saved the message.
"I asked people all over the company if it could be retrieved."
"He sounded just like always," Courtney says. "Just like he was calling to say 'Pick up a newspaper on the way home."'
Such composure astonished Silva, listening to voice mails donated to the Sonic Memorial Project.
"They're thinking past their own fears, telling people to take care of themselves and that they loved them," she says.
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