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Utahns touched by tragedy are still on road to recovery

Margaret Wahlstrom and her daughter had just returned from London last month when she heard that terrorists were planning to blow up planes flying from England to the United States.

"It could happen again," Wahlstrom thought.

The "it," of course, is another terrorist attack like the ones on Sept. 11, 2001, when more than 3,000 people were killed.

Margaret's husband, Norman Wahlstrom Jr., lost his mother and sister in the 9/11 attacks that zeroed in on New York City.

On that day, Mary Alice Wahlstrom, 78, an avid reader and silent movie fan, and her daughter Carolyn Beug, 48, an accomplished musician, died after their American Airlines plane was hijacked by terrorists and flown into the first of two World Trade Center towers. The two women were returning from a trip to take Beug's twin daughters to Brown University in Rhode Island.

Of the 188 people who died in the Pentagon attack, two had relatives living in Utah. Killed were Rhonda Sue Ridge Rasmussen, 44, and Brady Howell, 26, an Idaho native.

Howell was working as a civilian watch officer for the chief of naval operations as an intern in the Pentagon when a hijacked plane plowed into the building.

"I think about losing Brady every day," said his mother, Jeanette Howell, from her home in St. George. "But I don't dwell on the bad parts."

Of Ken and Jeanette Howell's five children, Brady was the "life of the party," which is the way he was remembered at a recent family reunion in Centerville.

"Our children are sad and think it's terrible that so many innocent people were taken that day," Jeanette said. "But they have a peace about Brady."

Brady's wife, Liz, has not remarried and is currently serving a mission in Portugal for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"She's doing wonderful things," Jeanette said. "We're really proud of her."

The Wahlstrom family has also tried to navigate the bumpy road to recovery that began with tragedy five years ago.

Around the one-year anniversary of 9/11, Norman Wahlstrom Jr., a pathologist at Ogden Regional Medical Center, talked about how hard his mother's death was on his then-ailing father, Norman Wahlstrom Sr.

"She did everything for him, she just ran everything for him. That's been the saddest thing about the past year," Wahlstrom said in 2002. His father died earlier this year.

The attacks of 9/11 left permanent scars on father and son.

Norman Wahlstrom Jr., a Kaysville resident, has flown only once over the past five years, and that was to attend a memorial service in Florida.

It's not that he's afraid of death, Margaret said in an interview. It's just that flying is such a "strong" emotional tie to that day, "he just doesn't want to go there."

If Margaret flies anywhere with one of her seven children, it's hard for everyone because — however seemingly innocent or benign the act of boarding or sitting on a plane may seem — it reminds them of the last moments "Grandma" and "Aunt Carol" went through.

When she and Meredith, 20, returned from London, news of the terrorist plot rattled Margaret's husband.

"What would I have done if I had lost you and Meredith the same way I lost my mother and sister?" he asked Margaret.

Her new reality, shared by many, is this: Anywhere, anytime, terrorists could be planning to kill innocent people.

Earlier this month, wire services reported dozens more arrested in terror plots in England, Morocco and Denmark, separate from the 25 who were arrested in last month's plot in London to blow up U.S.-bound planes.

Margaret's realization is one that colors the way she thinks about what the Bush administration has dubbed the "war on terror."

She describes going to war with Iraq as "complex." When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Margaret said her husband sat on the bed and said to her, "I just don't want to see any more killing."

But Margaret's addendum to her husband's initial reaction to war is that if the United States doesn't do something, terrorists will keep killing innocent people. "We have to take a stand somewhere," she said.

Since the United States took a stand in Iraq more than three years ago, more than 2,650 U.S. military members, 18 from Utah, have died in Iraq.

Jeanette Howell and her family are also supportive of U.S. military efforts in Iraq, but her stance comes with a caveat.

"It makes me so sad to see more military and civilians killed and the hatred that is so prevalent," she said, speaking for her family. "But we're so supportive of trying to bring peace to other people and freedoms to other people."

On the plane back from London last month, a soldier returning to the United States after two tours in Iraq talked with Margaret's daughter about how the media aren't reporting enough of the good things happening in Iraq these days — how U.S. troops are helping to rebuild Iraq and forge new relationships with the Iraqis.

As for those troops who have died during the war effort, "I love them so much," Margaret said. To the mothers of the fallen, "I feel so strongly about the sacrifice their sons have made," she added.

So strongly that she is helping with planning for a memorial in Kaysville to the victims of 9/11 and troops who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

And as a substitute teacher in the Davis County School District, Margaret said she will take the opportunity on the five-year anniversary of 9/11 to teach second-graders about the "deeper" meaning of that day. She plans to teach about the need to be better citizens, to love everyone in a world that is more "scary" and how they can make the world a better place.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com