By Donald Wittkowski
In the first call John Rodak made to his wife, Joyce, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he told her that he believed a small plane had struck the New York skyscraper where he worked, the World Trade Center.
His second call was far more ominous. In it, he described how panic-stricken workers wanted to flee the building, prompting his wife to plead with him, “Please leave.”
The third call was the last they would share. Sensing their final moments, John and Joyce expressed their love for each other. Joyce never heard from her husband again.
John Rodak’s tragic death was recalled Sunday evening during a 9/11 memorial ceremony in Ocean City that included his wife, his two daughters, Chelsea and Devon, and his son-in-law, Vincent Primavera.
Joyce Rodak told the hundreds of people who attended the ceremony, which marked the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, that her husband’s death was devastating. But she also noted that it taught her of the need to spread kindness and peace in the world.
“We need to help each other,” she said, fighting back tears. “Let’s all try to make this world a better place.”
John Rodak worked for the investment banking firm Sandler O’Neill on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. The South Tower collapsed just before 10 a.m., after being struck by a commercial jetliner hijacked by terrorists. The World Trade Center’s North Tower would collapse about 28 minutes later, also doomed by a hijacked jetliner flown by terrorists.
The Rodaks, of Sewell, Gloucester County, have a summer vacation home in Ocean City. The family has grown to love Ocean City, Primavera said.
“It’s a place of comfort and a place we call home,” Primavera said in remarks on behalf of the Rodak family at the ceremony.
In a poignant moment, Mayor Jay Gillian presented the Rodaks with a commemorative piece of the Boardwalk in honor of John Rodak.
“You’ll always be welcome here, and I hope you can consider yourselves at home when you’re here with us,” Gillian said.
Called “A Day to Remember,” the 9/11 ceremony was held at the Ocean City Fire Headquarters at 550 Asbury Ave. A giant American flag hanging high up from the ladder of a fire truck provided a patriotic backdrop.
Flag-bearing members of the Ocean City Boy Scouts Troop 32 presented the colors. The flag salute was led by representatives of American Legion Post 524 and VFW Post 6650.
The ceremony honored the 9/11 victims with a bell-ringing ritual that revived a tradition performed in the 1800s when a firefighter died in the line of duty. Ocean City Fire Capt. Gary Green tapped a silver bell five times in four intervals in a tradition known as the “striking of the four fives.”
Firefighters attired in their dress uniforms and white gloves stood at attention. They were joined by Ocean City police officers and other emergency responders.
Gillian thanked them all for their efforts to keep the city — and the nation — safe. He noted that the same type of heroism occurred when so many New York City emergency responders were killed while trying to rescue the people trapped in the fiery World Trade Center towers.
“Today, we mourn all of those who lost their lives on that day. But we also remember how first responders and ordinary citizens acted with unbelievable heroism,” Gillian said.
“The attacks were designed to instill fear in Americans and to drive us apart. But the opposite happened. Americans pulled together like never before,” Gillian continued.
The mayor and other speakers at the ceremony stood just steps from the Ocean City 9/11 Memorial, which includes a steel girder recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center. A wreath was laid at the memorial Sunday.
Gillian said it is hard to believe that 15 years have passed since the attacks. He also pointed out that freshmen entering Ocean City High School this fall were not yet born when the attacks occurred.
“It’s important for them — and for all of us — to learn about and to remember that day. Its victims, its heroes and the American spirit that grew in the aftermath,” Gillian concluded.