A tree grew in Secaucus Town Christmas tree has symbolic meaning for WTC refugee

Shock was the first thing Phyllis Colon felt when she came home after last week’s wind storms to find her 25-foot pine tree on the ground.

The tree had become such a symbol of stability she couldn’t believe it had fallen over. Colon, who moved into the house at Hudson and Mansfield avenues in June 2001, said the tree was likely planted by the original owners, but had taken on extra meaning for her after Sept. 11, 2001 when she had escaped alive from the crumbling World Trade Center where she had worked.

“Sept. 11 hit me hard,” she said. “I couldn’t go back to work for a long time after that, and I have a hard time going to New York City.”

Coming home after being hospitalized in Brooklyn after the attack, Colon came to love the tree in her back yard. “It was my World Trade Center,” she said, “and it was still standing.”

She recalled always looking out the window and finding comfort in seeing it in the yard. So symbolic was the tree in her life, it became a landmark for people seeking to find where she lived.

“If we called for a pizza delivery, we would tell the delivery person to look for the tree,” she said. Even from the start, the tree was important, she said.

“I grew up in the city,” said the Hoboken native, “So when we moved to Secaucus, this was a tree of our own.” She had resisted moving from Hoboken, but eventually gave in as members of her family moved to Secaucus before her. She recalled how much her dog Bono (named after the lead singer of the Irish band U2) loved the tree. “It was his tree,” Colon said. “He would sit in front of us with us.”

The official tree for Secaucus

Town officials had eyed Colon’s tree for several years for use as the official Christmas tree, said Department of Public Works Superintendent Michael Gonnelli.

“But she wouldn’t part with it,” he said.

Colon said she knew that she eventually wanted to see the large evergreen as the official tree, but each year she said, “not yet.”

“What’s really strange is that this year, we planned to decorate the tree in the yard for the first time,” she said as she watched town workers unload the tree in the Plaza in an effort to set it up for the official tree lighting ceremony on Dec. 6, a ceremony in which Colon will take part.

“My first thought when I saw the tree had fallen was to call the town and tell them they could have it,” she said. “But it was 5:30 p.m. and I had to wait until morning to call.”

Gonnelli, however, had passed the house and knew of the tree’s fate and knew why Colon was calling. “We told her we would come right over and pick it up,” he said.

“They came right away,” Colon said with a laugh. “I was still in the shower when they arrived.”

A change in the world

Coincidentally, the tree was lifted into place at about the same moment the PATH station at the site of the former World Trade Center was opening, a ceremony to which Colon was invited, but she declined.

“I don’t want to go back there,” she said, recalling still the horror of her escape from the 64th floor of the North Tower on Sep. 11, 2001. “I was very lucky to get out.”

She does not know why she survived when 25 fellow Port Authority workers did not.

“People tell me I must have a purpose, that’s why I was spared,” she said. “But I worked with a girl who had just had twins. She had a purpose, too. But she didn’t survive.”

For Colon, the tree became a symbol of her survival. Seeing it outside her window every day gave her hope, and allowed her to recover well enough to eventually return to work with the Port Authority.

Seeing it fallen after the wind storm after her dog had recently perished left her with a vacancy not just in her yard, but in her life.

“We went and bought two new dogs,” she said. But these, although loveable, could not replace the dog she lost, no more than any ceremony could make up for the loss of the tree. Still, seeing the tree rise again amazed Colon. “It’s like seeing the World Trade Center rise again,” she said. And though she is sad to lose the tree, she said she wanted to donate it.

“I just wanted to see the tree rise one more time,” she said as she videotaped the workers lifting the tree into place, her voice thick from sobs she could not control.

“Everything is different now,” she said. “I look at everything differently than the way I used to.”


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