MANILA, Philippines — A street sign in Manila shows an American businesswoman and Sept. 11 victim smiling down on a community whose transformation would have warmed her heart: Children frolicking on tidy brick alleys near brightly colored houses.
Unlike many victims of the 2001 attacks who are remembered mostly by their family and friends, Marie Rose Abad's legacy lives on half-way around the world in a once-notorious Manila slum now turned into an orderly village that carries her name.
Her Philippine-born American husband had the community of about 50 one-story houses built in her memory in 2004 as a tribute to their 26 years of marriage and her unfulfilled desire to help the poor in the Philippines.
"She's a hero around here," said Nancy Waminal, a 37-year-old mother of two.
The neighborhood used to be a shantytown rife with garbage, human waste and crime.
But residents now see Marie Rose Abad Village as a bright spot spun out of the disaster thousand of miles away at Ground Zero.
"This used to be a dreaded area," said Waminal, who heads the village homeowners' association. "Now there is no more fighting, no more stabbings, no more drinking on the street."
The black-and-white image of Marie Rose is on the side of a framed, rectangular sign welcoming visitors to the community.
Residents reverentially wipe the picture each day with cloth and refer to her as though she were family, though few know details of her life.
Before she became one of the nearly 2,800 killed in the unprecedented terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, Abad was a senior executive at the New York-based investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.
She was at the twin towers when the second plane slammed below her 89th-floor office.
In her final cellphone call that day to her Long Island home, the 49-year-old Abad urged husband Rudy Abad to pray before hanging up.
Her husband froze a few minutes later as he watched her tower crumble on TV, ending what he called a fairytale marriage in an American dream.
A New York-born daughter from an Italian immigrant family, Marie Rose Abad had a soft spot for children and the underprivileged.
The couple's encounter with the crushing poverty that afflicts nearly a third of the 94 million people in the Philippines came as a surprise during a 1989 visit.
It was the first time back home for Rudy Abad, who was from an affluent family, since he left Manila in 1963 to study in the United States, where he eventually acquired citizenship and married Marie Rose. He had told his wife that the Philippines was a paradise.
What they saw appalled them.
"I could not believe what I was seeing because right there from the airport I could see the squatters, the shanties and everything," he said during an interview at his home south of Manila. "We were looking at each other because my story to her was the Philippines is beautiful."
Her pledge to help
The childless couple were out jogging without cash near a cathedral one day when they were mobbed by street children aged 4 and 5 peddling lottery tickets. They were overcome with guilt that they couldn't help the kids.
"That was the first time she felt the pain," he said, recalling that Marie Rose asked him to take her to a bank, where she got about $12 worth of Philippine coins.
They returned to the church, where she announced to the kids' applause that she would buy all of their tickets.
Later, he said she told him: "I don't know when, where and how but some day, I'm going to come back and I'm going to do more than this."
Their romance included a weekly coffee ritual at the World Trade Center towers.Story: ‘Where You Left Me’: 9/11 widow regains ability to love
Every Monday, he would drive her to work and park in front of the skyscrapers while they chatted and enjoyed a thermos of their favorite brew.
She would bid him good bye and when he returned home, almost like clockwork, "the email is there: 'Thanks for driving me to work,'" he said.
For the rest of the week, Abad would drive her to a nearby train station and then return home to prepare for his work as an stocks investment adviser, as he did on Sept. 11, 2001, a Tuesday.
On that morning, he was exercising in his basement when she called to tell him she was all right despite the plane crashing into the first of the towers. He switched on the TV and later watched in disbelief as the second plane smashed into her tower.
Final call: 'It's too hot'
Her voice became frantic in succeeding calls as chaos engulfed her office. Then, the final call: "It's too hot, this might be the last time that I will talk to you," she said.
"I remembered her last words to me at the time was, 'Ru, pray, pray,'" he said.
"I said, 'Yup, OK' " and they hung up.
A few minutes later, he saw her tower collapse to the ground.
"Every time, if I think of that, I feel how all that concrete came down on her," he said, weeping.
She had survived the first terrorist attempt to topple the twin towers with a bomb in 1993.
"I was there when she came down full of smoke on her face because they had walked down 110 stories," he said, adding that she was stunned and just wanted him to bring her home instead of taking her to the hospital.Ground Zero ten years later
Abad said he drifted aimlessly during the three years after her death, unable to work.
He tried to find a new meaning in life. "I lost the other half of me so my half didn't know what to do," he said.
Then he met Philippine friends involved with the Gawad Kalinga charity, which seeks to transform slums across the country into decent, productive communities through volunteer work and donations.
Transformed by 9/11
Abad remembered his wife's promise to help the poor and decided to donate more than $60,000 for the construction of a village for destitute families in Manila's Tondo slum.
When construction began, Abad brought wealthy Filipino friends to the site to help lay bricks and paint the houses.
A friend who owns Starbucks outlets brought tables, chairs and a glass showcase for a village cafe, where young students now hang out and study.
"It's the good side of 9/11," Gawad Kalinga volunteer Jun Valbuena said.Story: Kids of 9/11 get a voice as 10th anniversary looms
Abad, who has retired and now shuttles between homes in Las Vegas and Manila, has become an advocate of philanthrophy, urging rich Filipinos to help the poor beyond giving alms.
He says Sept. 11 transformed him, teaching him about suffering.
"If the tragedy that happened to Marie did not happen ... I don't know that I would have been moved to do the same thing," he said.
"It was the tragedy that opened up your eyes, that makes you want to do something far and beyond."
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