Robert Weissberg remembers when his daughter Nicole was a child roaming the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, ordering peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the dining room or playing on luggage carts in the halls with her younger brother.
In her 20s, she returned to drink Scotch at the bar of the hotel owned by her grandfather. When it was sold after his death, she dreamed of someday buying it back.
“She was the one who had the drive and ambition to carry on the business,” Weissberg said of his 27-year-old daughter.
Nicole Weissberg, a business student at the University of Denver, was among thousands of people killed by the tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean a year ago.
Robert Weissberg comes alive when telling stories about his daughter — about how she traveled the world but still thought to call him when an ATM machine didn’t work during a backpacking trip in the Andes.
Or how, in the middle of political arguments with her boyfriend, Morgan Browning, she would take a break to e-mail her father, a former political science professor at the University of Illinois. Then she would pick up the argument again with more ammunition.
But Robert Weissberg’s demeanor changes when he recalls Nicole’s funeral in March, not long after her body was identified and returned to the United States.
“It’s over. It’s finished. I’m trying to forget, the grief at least,” he says.
‘All memories ... all experience’
Nicole’s body was returned to the United States months after the tsunami, but that hasn’t brought Weissberg closure. He still remembers the little girl he likens to Eloise, the children’s book character who lived in another New York hotel, The Plaza.
He lives a few blocks from ground zero in New York and thinks about how many relatives of the Sept. 11 victims never found a trace of their loved ones.
“To me, there’s nothing physical about this,” he says. “It’s all memories. It’s all experience.”
Nicole had traveled abroad extensively before her final trip, when she traveled alone to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos before arriving in Thailand.
She talked to Browning on Dec. 25 after a diving trip in Khao Lak and planned to spend the following day on the beach before a reunion with her boyfriend on Dec. 27 in Phuket, a popular Thai beach resort.
The waves hit just as Browning was boarding a plane in Denver. He spent a week searching for her, looking in morgues set up at Buddhist temples and bribing cabbies to get him around. He found no clues then and another search in January was also fruitless.
Then, a sign of Nicole surfaced through something Browning calls “kind of cosmic.”
Rachael Miller, a 24-year-old volunteer, was documenting Western identification cards found in the debris near Khao Lak.
It was Miller — the only member of the recovery team from Denver — who came across Nicole’s student ID card and her driver’s license.
When she returned to Denver at the end of January, she contacted university officials.
“I know that for me, I know that God had his hand on all of this,” says Miller, who attended Nicole’s memorial service and met the young woman’s parents and friends.
Miller and Browning have become friends and she says her experience in Thailand gave her “a heart” for mission work.
“I think this person was supposed to find this for some reason,” Browning said. “I can’t logically explain it — except there was a reason.”