A Son Lost, But Not Forgotten
Ten years after Vienna native Mark Ryan McGinly was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, his father Bill works to keep his memory alive
Mark McGinly had a smile that could “charm the hell out of anyone.”
On Sept. 7, 2001, it was what Bill McGinly saw as he hugged his middle son and told him he loved him at a lunch date in Manhattan, where Mark worked as a trader. The two were planning to meet in Chicago the following week, Bill on a business trip, Mark to meet friends and explore the city with his father.
Bill climbed into a cab to catch a plane back to Vienna, glancing over his shoulder as he drove away. Mark was waving from the sidewalk. Bill returned the wide, dimpled grin the two shared, waving back.
“And that was it,” McGinly said.
Four days later, Bill McGinly was on that trip in Chicago, returning from a morning walk when his cell phone rang. It was a family friend.
“Is Mark okay?” the friend asked.
“What do you mean?” McGinly said.
“You better turn the TV on.”
McGinly saw a commercial airplane wedged into the side of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, where Mark, a 26-year-old precious metals trader with Carr Futures, worked the international night desk. Smoke billowed from its nose, fire creeping around its belly.
Bill’s friend said his own son – a trader in London – was talking to Mark when the line went dead.
A plane had driven into the building directly above Mark's floor.
McGinly has replayed those scenes in his head almost every day in the decade since those Sept. 11 attacks; the initial “what-ifs” – maybe Mark had dashed down toward the street. Maybe it wasn’t his side of the building. Maybe he made it out alive.
As McGinly sat in “utter disbelief,” driving back to Vienna with coworkers from Chicago in a relay of cars because flights were unavailable, that sense of hope grew smaller. All those below the 92nd floor, where Mark worked, seemed to have a chance to make it out alive – above it, they learned, dry wall had crumbled, blocking the stairways.
“This can’t be,” McGinly remembers thinking. “It just cannot be.”
It’s a thought he still can’t shake 10 years later, still hurt, still angry, still wondering what his son could have become.
“I’ve had friends who have said to me, ‘Why aren’t you over this? It should be out of your head.’ I will never get over it,” McGinly said. “I ask them, 'How often do you think about your kids?' The answer is every day. Well, I tell them, that’s how often I think about Mark. Every day, it all comes back."
Mark was born on Dec 24, 1974 in Georgetown, “The greatest Christmas present,’ McGinly says.
Early on, the middle McGinly child – with his mother’s dark hair and eyes but his father’s set of dimples anchored at the corners of his mouth – was an athlete.
Sports came naturally to Mark, despite a problem with depth perception his parents McGinly, President and CEO of the Falls-Church based Association for Healthcare Philanthropy, and wife Patty, an elementary school principal in Loudoun County, discovered at an early age.
Unlike his older brother Sean and younger brother Drew, who took to the football and baseball fields, Mark never liked hitting people, or getting hit.
Instead, he fell naturally into golf, helping lead Madison High School’s team to two state championships in 1990 and 1992. He also played basketball. On the court, Mark was a hustler, shorter than many of his teammates but content with being the 6th or 7th man on the lineup. On the days he was off, “man he was off,” McGinly said. On the days he was on, Mark was a threatening point guard, putting up 15 to 18 points a game.
“He was fun to watch,” McGinly said. “You never quite knew which way he was going to go.”
Mark played into his role a typical middle child: always out to prove himself against his siblings. His younger brother Drew spent hours throwing a football through the tire in the family’s Vienna backyard. One day, McGinly said, Mark got up from the couch, picked up the football and put it directly through the middle of the tire.
“What’s all this noise about? What’s all this practice crap?” Mark teasingly asked his younger brother.
Mark continued to “live life to the fullest” after graduating Madison in 1993. He went on to Bucknell University, following in the footsteps of his high school basketball teammate, Kevin Wenk. Mark played golf at Bucknell, joining the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity, while Wenk, a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, continued to play basketball.
Wenk moved to Manhattan to work for Merrill Lynch in 1996, and when Mark graduated in 1997, he followed. The pair became roommates, first in an apartment at 24th Street and Lexington Ave, and later on the Upper West Side, Wenk said. The pair lived there for the next few years, until a month or two before the attacks, when Wenk moved into his own apartment two blocks away.
“He packed a lot of living into his 26 years. He was never shy to share his opinion either. If one of our friends’ clothes didn’t match or if someone was being cheap with buying drinks at the bar, Mark would certainly call them out,” Wenk said.
“He went out of his way to make sure everyone was having a good time, and everyone was included,” said Dave Steigerwald, a close college friend and Mark’s roommate at the time of the attacks.
Sometimes, after their core group of eight friends in Manhattan had called it a night, Steigerwald and Mark would mosey down the street to a small, dark Irish bar called the Emerald Inn, where a bartender named Charlie would pour them each a pint of Guinness and a shot of Jameson whisky.
“Mark and I would talk about everything and nothing at all, but with the intensity and interest that our conversation might be contributing to the solution to all of life’s problems,” Steigerwald said.
Steigerwald said Mark loved the buzz of New York, loved the life of being a trader. But he was also serious about his job.
“He had a great wit about him; subtle sarcasm that was always genuinely funny. He loved to laugh and he loved to be around his friends - and he was an extremely loyal person. He was very much a work hard / play hard type of guy,” Steigerwald said.
The weekend before the attacks, Steigerwald, Mark and a few other friends went on a golf trip in Pennsylvania, staying at a college friend’s lake house on Indian Lake, about a mile from the United Flight 93 crash site. A week later, wreckage was pulled from that water.
“It was a great weekend of golf, playing on the water, and staying up late enjoying the company of a fantastic group of people,” Steigerwald said.
The last time Steigerwald would see Mark was on the morning of Sept. 11. Mark worked European trading hours, around 2 a.m. to 10 a.m., so he typically left the apartment around 1:30 am.
“I was in bed but could see him through my doorway. I clearly remember being half awake, and thinking 'I should tell him to have a good day.' But I didn’t,” he said.
Later that morning, Steigerwald turned the TV on around 8:50 a.m. On the screen, the World Trade Center was burning.
“Immediately, I thought I left a movie channel on from the night before. I clicked up and down a few channels and it was all the same image with the broadcasters saying the same things about the North Tower, Mark’s building," he said. "I quickly jumped up, put on the TV in the living room (hoping for something different?) and immediately grabbed the phone and called Mark’s cell and office over and over getting nothing," Steigerwald said.
“I stood in my towel, dripping wet, watching the TV when the second plane hit. I vividly remember, yelling into a small quiet apartment “WHAT THE F***!”
He tried Mark’s phones again. No luck. He called Wenk, who worked across the street. Wenk said he was evacuating the building.
Dave started walking south toward the towers, down 6th Avenue, where he could see the towers burning.
“I did not see them fall, but by the time I got as far south as I could, lower Manhattan was filled with dust and debris,” Stiegerwald said.
He returned to the apartment, where Wenk and other friends had started to gather.
“I looked at both of them and the first thing I said was “Where’s Mark?" Steigerwald said.
In the days that followed, 10 of Mark’s friends became a pack, rarely leaving each other’s side. They huddled around the television, scoured hospitals for Mark’s name.
“I slept with the lights on and would be startled awake by the phone, and Mark’s boss checking in from London to see if there was any word,” Steigerwald said.
When he got word of the attacks, Mark’s older brother Sean, a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, drove to meet their younger brother Drew, who was at flight school in Texas. They drove straight back to the McGinly home in Vienna.
After spending time at home, Drew left to return to flight school.
Sean stayed, living in Vienna for three months to spend time with his father and taking long walks with his mother. On one of them, she suggested that Sean, who was struggling with depression, write a movie about it.
“She thought it’d be a small project, a project that helped him,” McGinly said.
The “small project” evolved into a full-blown documentary called “Brothers Lost,” which tells the stories of 31 men who lost their brothers on 9/11.
For the fifth anniversary of the attacks, HBO bought the film, premiering it in New York.
“I’ve thought a lot about Mark and what it really means to have, and lose, a brother,” Sean's voice says in the documentary. “He died in an instant, and in many ways it was almost like he had just vanished.”
McGinly has spent the past 10 years trying to make sure Mark’s memory doesn’t vanish, too. The movie – and a scholarship fund the family created in Mark’s name – have carried the McGinlys through harder moments: Drew having to take his carrier landing tests on Sept. 11, 2002, exactly one year after his brother was killed. Going to weddings of Mark’s college and high school friends, where they wonder what their own son’s wedding may have been like. Bill and Patty wear silver bracelets, Mark’s name and WTC engraved in them, every day.
They constantly work on relationships between husband and wife, father and son, that will never be the same.
“[Patty and I would] get angry at one another … because who else do you get angry with? I have two other sons dealing with this, besides the two of us. How do we help them? It’s a struggle and continues to be for the whole family,” McGinly said. “As so many families know that have gone through losing a child, your attitude changes. You have friends that can’t deal with you anymore. They can’t handle us. Other friends we’ve had from so long ago that have gotten closer.”
McGinly, McGinly's brother and son Sean have gone back to New York for the anniversary of the attacks every year, often with Mark’s longtime childhood friend, Brian Cramp. This year, about a dozen of Mark’s family and friends will attend ceremonies at the World Trade Center site.
Patty and Drew, now a Navy pilot, won’t be among them. They say they’ll never return to New York, for the same reason they often don’t talk to reporters.
“It’s just too hard for them,” McGinly said.
The news of Osama bin Laden’s death in May brought a hint of closure for McGinly, his clear blue eyes brimming with tears as he talks about the dreams of the Al Qaeda leader that haunted him for many nights after his son’s death.
“To be honest, my first reaction was, 'I would’ve paid anything to be that seal,'” McGinly said. “It never undoes anything but at least some justice came.”
This spring, the McGinlys will discontinue the Mark Ryan McGinly Memorial Scholarship, which has given more than half a million dollars to high school students across Nothern Virginia.
“We can’t do this forever," McGinly said. “It’s just become too hard for us. These kids apply and have to write an essay comparing and contrasting themselves to what they read about Mark. Our hearts just go through the floor.”
McGinly will continue to participate in remembrance programs, reading names of victims at ceremonies and playing in the annual golf tournament in Mark’s name at Westwood Country Club. He still sees Steigerwald and Wenk, calling up them when he’s in the area on business. They have dinner, wine and toast to Mark.
Day to day, when talking about plans or parties, Steigerwald and Wenk sign their emails “WWMD – What Would Mark Do.”
The pair are in Las Vegas this weekend with a group of Mark’s close friends, honoring him in a way that he would have loved, Wenk said.
Still, McGinly fears the memory of his son will disappear, he said, leaning forward on a recent rainy afternoon to wipe raindrops from the likeness of his son’s face, etched into a granite plaque at Westwood Country Club. Three flagpoles embrace the glistening memorial just past the club’s main entrance, honoring the son, brother and friend that so often played golf there.
“I always wondered about why people would have plaques. I never really liked them. And then I lost my son,” McGinly said, wiping the granite clean to reveal straight lines of slicked back hair, bright eyes and a sly grin. "Now, my biggest fear is that no one will remember him.”