On September 11, 2001, TJ Hargrave perished in the World Trade Center towers along with more than 2,700 others. TJ's brother-in-law Tom Kerns remembers TJ — in words and in deeds.
“TJ reached a lot of people. He was a mentor. He was a guy who was very sure of himself. He wasn’t afraid to tell you what he thought and would get into debates all the time."
Maplewood resident Tom Kerns smiled as he reflected on his brother-in-law, Timothy John Hargrave, in a recent interview. It was quite rare for Kerns, 53, to discuss the loss of TJ, who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center nearly ten years ago. The memories are too painful; the emotions still raw even after a decade.
“He was one of my best friends. He wasn’t just a brother-in-law. You never saw him without a book in his hand. He was extremely well read. We’d go out to dinner a lot and for drinks and share war stories about working on Wall Street. We talked about everything.”
Although it was difficult, Kerns agreed to an interview about TJ because he thought it was important to talk about what the upcoming anniversary means to him and his family, and also how the events of September 11, 2001 have affected his decision to become involved in community building through nonprofit work and investments in the Maplewood/South Orange area and beyond.
Kerns retired last year after 30 years on Wall Street, with his last position as a hedge fund accountant. When the planes hit the towers in 2001, he was working at Deutsche Bank in midtown Manhattan and watched in horror on televisions on the trading room floor as the towers burned and eventually fell.
Kerns’ wife, Jeanmarie Hargrave, was watching the events on the news from their home in Maplewood, desperately trying to get in touch with her brother TJ — an options trader and salesman at Cantor Fitzgerald. His cell phone went straight to voicemail.
Stuck in Tower 1 with colleagues, TJ had called his wife, Patty, to tell her he was evacuating the office because the smoke was so thick. They never heard from him again.
“It was a blur, but apparently I kept on saying out loud ‘Buddy, get out, get out.’ And then the tower fell … and there was no way anyone survived that. I knew he was gone, I felt it,” Kerns said quietly.
Meanwhile, while glued to the television in Maplewood and working the phones, Jeanmarie could not keep her panic hidden from their five-year-old daughter Erin. Because she couldn’t get through to his cell phone, Jeanmarie left the room to see if she could get Cantor’s general 800 number to try to reach her brother. Erin, alone in the TV room, watched the the second plane hit the south tower live on TV. When she returned to the room, Jeanmarie found Erin under a couch cushion sobbing, ”I want my daddy. I want my daddy. I want my daddy.” Erin thought her father was in the towers.
After many tries, Jeanmarie got Kerns on the phone so Erin could hear his voice and then she was okay. The couple’s older daughters, Kathryn and Maura, were at Clinton School. When a family friend came to get Kathryn out of her 5th grade class she knew enough about what was going on to burst into tears, fearing her father was gone. Kerns shudders at the memory. ”In hindsight I think she felt guilty for feeling better, but she did feel better that it wasn’t me.”
Kerns described the moments after the towers fell as surreal, as people all around him were terrified and crying. He went into his office and fell apart. A short while later, his boss walked in. “He said, ‘Get it out now, Kerns. Lose it now, get it out now, your family needs you. You’re an icon to your family and you’re the one who’s going to pull them through this.’ Probably the nicest thing anybody could say in an angry way. I’ll never forget what he did for me.”
Kerns swallowed the advice and left the office immediately to be with his family. It took him hours to get back to Maplewood, eventually via a ferry to Weehawken, a bus to Hoboken and then an NJ Transit train to Maplewood. He picked up his car and drove straight to Readington, New Jersey where TJ and Patty lived with their three girls: Cori, 8; Casey, 6; and Amy, 4.
TJ was the youngest of eight in the Hargrave clan. The tight-knit family gathered at his home for several weeks to support Patty and the girls. Wanting to do whatever he could to ease her burden, Kerns helped Patty work through the logistics and financial issues after TJ’s death.
“I got her accounts lined up, got her insurance collected, worked with her on victim’s compensation stuff and got her set, but she’s doing fine on her own. Our goal was to make sure she would be home for the kids and it worked and she’s still there for them."
TJ’s remains were never found. The family held a memorial service for him in Readington that was packed with mourners wanting to pay their respect. Kerns describes TJ as a loving father and husband who made family a priority. Although he knew little about soccer, he learned enough to coach his girls, and Readington posthumously named a local soccer field for him. He had also been a child actor, featured in the soap opera The Guiding Light, in a television movie, and dozens of commercials.
There are dedications and remembrances everywhere. A few days after the tragedy, Erin and seven-year-old Maura were playing with Legos and built replicas of the twin towers. Those buildings still sit on Kerns’ dresser today. There is an Essex County Memorial to the victims—a granite wall engraved with all the names—in West Orange, and the Kerns family donated a bench in honor of TJ which sits in front of the Coldwell Banker office on Maplewood Avenue.
The family still grieves TJ’s death every day. They find it difficult to move on because there are so many reminders.
"If he had to die, I wish it could have been in a car crash. We would still mourn his loss but we wouldn’t be reminded of it every time we got on an airplane or turned on the news.” Kerns says the first couple of years after 9/11 the grief was awful all the time.
"The first anniversary was horrific. But now it’s only right around 9/11 when it’s gut wrenching. But even now it’s getting easier with time. We do our own little candle lighting ceremony at night—just our family and maybe some neighbors. Over the years it’s dwindled. Even the kids don’t want to do it anymore because it’s a reminder."
But it is important to Jeanmarie to mark 9/11 because she doesn’t want anybody to ever forget what happened on that day. While her siblings, Patty, and nieces have all gone into Manhattan on previous anniversaries to see Ground Zero and participate in the name reading ceremonies, Jeanmarie has never gone. She felt unable to bear it until now.
When Osama Bin Laden was killed last spring in a U.S. military mission, it was an intense time for the family.
"It was a very emotional night. Jeanmarie was crying. It was the first time there was any kind of closure. Actually, it was huge for her. Anybody has closure when they feel justice has been done."
One way Jeanmarie has been able to work through her grieving is by serving as a docent for tours sponsored by the 9/11 Families Association at Ground Zero where the towers once stood in New York. Tour docents are either friends or relatives of victims or survivors, each with a compelling story to tell.
Kerns said hearing the experiences of others is therapeutic for Jeanmarie. "It doesn’t lessen her grief but it makes it easier to deal with." The 9/11 Memorial will be dedicated on September 11 in a special ceremony for victims’ families. This year for the first time — because of her involvement with the tours — Jeanmarie and Tom will go to Ground Zero, but with mixed feelings.
"It’s important that the nation remembers. It’s bittersweet. I want them to remember, but I don’t want the constant reminders,” said Kerns.
In some ways time has eased the pain for the family and they are moving forward. “Patty and the kids are doing great. She’s done an amazing job raising three very confident, positive kids.” But Kerns is disappointed in what’s happened in the country since the terrorist attack.
“9/11 was a tragedy that brought everybody together — the entire country, the entire world — for too short a period. I think it’s important that people have the welfare of each other in mind as a common purpose. Hearing people’s stories about 9/11 is interesting, but it means nothing if people don’t take something away from it."
What the Hargrave-Kerns family took away from their 9/11 experience was gratitude for the Maplewood/South Orange community that rallied around them when they were climbing out of despair. Friends, neighbors and many strangers offered to help watch and drive their three young daughters, cooked countless meals, and offered words of comfort without being asked or thanked.
"The last thing we wanted to do was worry about what was going on at home. Knowing we had friends and even complete strangers to help was comforting. And you really felt like everybody came together and that was the first catalyst for the charity.”
The family will never forget the kindness and generosity they experienced in the wake of 9/11. So when Kerns decided to retire last year, he wanted to focus his time and energy on resurrecting that feeling and nourishing it.
"9/11 was the ultimate example of people coming together but it shouldn’t take that for people to come together." Kerns’ passion for creating and supporting community is clear, and he literally put his money where his mouth is in founding the HK Community Fund. It’s a non-profit organization that promotes community building by helping recruit volunteers and funding for educational opportunities and cultural events, and helps community members in crisis.
Most importantly, Kerns hopes to foster a sense of common purpose, a sense of belonging and community involvement from community members.
"I often wonder what our life would be like if TJ didn’t die. What our family would be like," Kerns said.
While he’ll never know what could have been, he is concentrating now on making his community stronger and more connected as a result of the tragedy. The entire Hargrave-Kerns family, said Kerns, is making TJ’s loss mean something by trying to foster that feeling of community felt after 9/11 and maintaining that energy, kindness and respect for each other every day.