Since Sept. 11, 2001, Richard Pecorella has been searching the Internet and elsewhere for a single image, a photograph he believes will show him what happened to his fiancee when the World Trade Center was destroyed.
“I need to know how she died: Did she burn? Did she jump? Did she suffer?” Pecorella says. “I would have hoped she jumped, rather than burn.”
Pecorella spent hours at his computer, scouring the Web for whatever photographs he could find of the aftermath of the terrorists’ attack.
About two years ago, he spotted an Associated Press photograph that he says made him believe Karen Juday, a 52-year-old administrative assistant for the Cantor Fitzgerald brokerage, did jump from the 101st floor of the trade center’s burning north tower.
The photo, by AP photographer Amy Sancetta, shows a group of people desperately peering from gaping holes high up in the tower, some trying to get out.
“I saw her,” Pecorella said. “She was wearing a blue bandanna, like she did at work to hold her hair back, and it was her shape. She had on a blue sweater and cream-colored pants that day.”
‘I want to be 100 percent sure’
With smoke and flames behind her, the woman seemed poised to jump, holding onto the window frame and looking toward the ground.
The image is not clear enough for Pecorella to be absolutely sure it was Juday, and whether she did jump is a question that will haunt him forever.
“I’m 90 percent sure. But I want to be 100 percent sure,” says Pecorella.
The 54-year-old investment banking executive appears in the documentary film “9/11: The Falling Man,” about the image taken by AP photographer Richard Drew of a man plunging headfirst from one of the towers.
On a recent day, Pecorella was at the AP’s New York headquarters poring over images of people stuck in the twin towers, and of some falling after they jumped.
One showed a woman falling through the air who “looks like she could be Karen. The clothes look right,” Pecorella said. Still, “we didn’t find anything other than the pictures I already had.”
He says he’ll keep looking for amateur photos and videos in hopes of finding an image that will show how his fiancee’s life ended.
He says the search “helps me with my grief.”
He met the woman he calls “the love of my life” on April 26, 1997, at a NASCAR race in Nazareth, Pa., while both were in the middle of bitter divorces. Juday, an assembly line worker who lived in Elkhart, Ind., was visiting a brother and Pecorella was at his first NASCAR race, on a ticket a friend gave him to distract him from his private troubles.
“It was instant magic,” he says of their first dinner that evening.
After he returned to his home in Brooklyn, he was awakened at 5 a.m. by a call from Juday, saying she was canceling her return to Indiana that day to see him again.
He took her on a whirlwind tour of New York, including the trade center.
Six months later, Juday had moved into Pecorella’s Brooklyn home and had taken a job with Cantor Fitzgerald. Each morning, they would drive to his office in downtown Brooklyn, then she’d take the subway to Manhattan.
“She loved it there. She’d say ’Wow, the planes fly right past the window!”’ he remembers.
They started planning a Las Vegas wedding for June 2002.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Pecorella was sitting at his office desk when the first hijacked plane hit the north tower. From his window, he watched in horror as the skyscraper disappeared in a mammoth cloud of smoke.
“I knew she was up there,” said Pecorella. Co-workers restrained him as he bolted from his desk, screaming and wanting to run to rescue her.
Coming to grips with loss
In October 2001, Pecorella celebrated “my best friend and lover” at a private memorial service. On that same day, his ex-wife died suddenly, leaving behind their two daughters.
For a half year after that, he drank himself into a stupor, “morning, noon and night,” but his employer held his job for him and he eventually returned to work — and life, including a girlfriend.
One day in the winter of 2002, he scattered Juday’s cremated remains — a single bone found in the trade center ruins — from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
At his office, Pecorella still has photos of Juday and the trade center, and an urn with soil from ground zero. He always carries her photo.
This year’s Sept. 11 memorial at ground zero, as every other year, will include the ceremonial reading of the names of the more than 2,700 people who died there. The readers will be their spouses and partners — including Pecorella.