There’s a reason rings are circular.
Like stories, but not quite.
A story is a spiral, as it takes you on a journey of higher understanding.
A ring is a symbol of a story it encicles.
The beginning, middle and the end are all the same in a ring, a reminder of the perpetuity of life condensed in the atoms of the circle.
Such is the story of a ring that survived the 9/11 inferno and the love that empowered it.
It bears a special meaning to Waverly, as it belonged to Karen Kincaid, who died when her plane crashed into the Pentagon that day.
I heard the story of the ring from Karen’s husband, Peter Batacan, when I was looking to localize the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
It was a heart-wrenching story about love, loss and legacy.
In our interview then, Peter told me he had given this ring to Karen on June 27, 1995, when he proposed to her under an elm tree in one of their favorite parks in Bethesda, Maryland. It had been returned to him after he recognized it when an FBI agent was showing him a folder with personal effects recovered at the scene.
Peter had the ring repaired and rest and attached to a necklace, which he treasured.
“A lot of emotions went through me at that time,” Peter told me in 2011. “I felt anger because that was the only physical thing that I could see of the horrible crime that had been committed. I felt anger, I felt joy that something that she had been wearing in her last moments had been returned to me.”
A poet, a musician and a lawyer, Peter was Karen’s soulmate. They had met at a party thrown by a friend for Karen’s birthday, and soon found they had a lot in common. They each came from the Midwest — she from Waverly, he from Michigan City, Indiana, and both had landed in Washington, D.C., and as fate would have it, they both were working for the Federal Communications Commission as lawyers.
They married on July 6, 1996. They cherished their togetherness, family, faith, nature, music, gardening and poetry. They visited Waverly, sometimes going for a jog on the Rail Trail Bridge, while visiting Karen’s sister, Karyl.
All that came to a tragic and untimely end on 9/11.
KAREN’S MEMORY LIVES ON
Today, at the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon, Karen’s name is inscribed on one of the 184 memorial benches built on the two acres of land where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed.
Each bench contains water reflecting the light and the illumination at night.
Water is also an essential part of the design of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, where Karen’s name, along with nearly 3,000 others who perished that day and in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, is etched on the bronze parapets of the waterfall pools.
The sound of falling water at that memorial is reminiscent of the sound of the Cedar River which runs through Karen hometown.
More intimately, in Chicago, two memorial bricks in a park, called OZ Park, after the world’s most celebrated wizard — one close by the sculpture of Dorothy, and another one not far from the sculpture of the Scarecrow — are daily reminders for joggers and passersby of Karen’s life.
In Waverly, there is a memorial plaque to Karen and the other victims just outside the Waverly-Shell Rock High School.
Over the years, an occasional teacher would bring her students there for a lesson in history, as it just so happens that nearby is the memorial of Donny Nichols, also a W-SR grad, who was killed in Afghanistan 10 years after 9/11.
On Saturday’s 20th anniversary of the tragedy, at the Waverly Area Veterans Post, that day was remembered with the national anthem, a prayer, brief statements from officials, and a firing of volleys by the honor guard.
And while Karen’s story teaches new generations about the meaning of life and the importance of living it fully, purposefully and passionately daily, those teachable moments seem to happen around anniversaries.
I myself learned of it as I was researching topics for coverage on the occasion of the 10th anniversary.
Eventually, I connected with Peter over the phone and email, and based on an interview with him then, I wrote a story for the Waverly Democrat and the Cedar Falls Times, which at the time were sister papers. (Here is a link to the original story: https://www.communitynewspapergroup.com/sacred-ground-the-ring-that-survived-the-inferno/article_9247c88e-fa0a-11eb-8fe7-9392aaf3bb5b.html)
The story of Karen and of the ring that survived 9/11 was powerful, it never left me.
It has taken me to the 9/11 Memorial in New York, where I visited in 2018 and brought my family along.
After consulting with one of the volunteers there, I found Karen’s name and stood there quietly for a while, then captured some of the sights and the sounds with my cell phone.
As the 20th anniversary was approaching this year, I decided that one way I could pay tribute to Karen was to work on a digital project telling the story of the ring and Peter and Karen’s love.
There was a whole new generation to tell that story to and many of them do not read the paper, I reasoned.
1970 W-SR grad learns of Kincaid at class reunion, shares story of own wedding Sept. 11, 2002, at Pentagon to reclaim date
On the 20th anniversary, I was gifted, generously, albeit haphazardly, with another story about 9/11 which I would not have heard had it not been for my continued focus on Karen’s story.
It goes like this: On Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, fresh from covering the veterans’ golf outing that morning at the Waverly Municipal Golf Course, I went to the Cedar River to take some footage of the water for inclusion into the digital version of the ring story.
I walked around and around, unfulfilled by the outcome. For some reason, I could not get it right — the lighting, the perspective, the sound of a lawn mower in the background when I was looking for solitude and silence — it all seemed wrong.
My frustration with myself was starting to simmer.
To break the cycle, I decided to regroup and take a break with a macchiato at Get Roasted, the coffee place next to the river.
As I walked in there, a man with a dog, Michael Hruza, was leaving the cafe. Drawn to the dog — the pup looked magnificent and composed, and later I found out his name was Rocky or Spirit of the Rockies — I asked to take a picture of this unusual encounter.
Had I just done that and moved on, I would never have heard what I can attest is a blessing in journalism — there is often a deeper story than the one in front of you, but you have to stand by and listen.
Doing just that — standing by and listening — and fully unsuspecting of where this was going to lead, I started recording Michael’s story about returning to Waverly on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 for a 50-plus-1 class reunion.
This is how I found out Michael has a special connection to the Pentagon and 9/11.
For my path to have crossed with his that day, as he was about to leave town — all packed up and ready for a trip back home to Colorado — is hardly a simple coincidence. And for that to have happened when I was working on the digital story about Karen’s memory is nothing short of fate.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, Sept. 11, 2002, Michael and his then fiancée, Fran Santagata, were married at the Pentagon chapel.
It was a very small wedding because only guests with special clearance could attend and it took place as the remembrance ceremony was going on outside the building.
Needless to say, as I listened to Michael, I was speechless, and as he told the story in the video, I had to suppress my gasp as the camera was rolling.
It was a mind-bending story, not just because it captured the warps of fate and time, but also because of how I stumbled upon it, serendipitously and blindly.
It was a gift and I was humbled to receive it.
Michael and Fran had timed their union with the commemoration outside the first anniversary ceremony that was going on outside the Pentagon in order to reclaim the day and turn the tragedy of the terrorist attacks into something they could “take back.”
“It gave us a remembrance of something other than just the tragedy,” Michael told me later.
On 9/11, Michael, who was a contractor for the Department of Defense, was riding his Harley-Davidson to work when he heard on his radio that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. A retired Air Force officer, he had served in multiple deployments in the Gulf War of 1991.
He knew America was under attack. The national tragedy turned Michael and Fran’s lives around with a renewed focus on their relationship.
“The events of 9/11 drew us together and we wanted to somehow acknowledge that,” he later told me. “We picked the day first and then we did some talking with the commander of the Pentagon and the chaplain there to make sure it was okay, and they said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
On Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, the couple marked their 19th anniversary, but they were apart. Michael was in Waverly for the reunion and Fran had remained in Colorado, where they reside.
“Today, Fran and I celebrate 18 years of marriage while we also carry heavy in our hearts those who lost their lives at the four different sites on that date, and those who sacrificed while trying to save, or recover victims,” he wrote in a Facebook post from 2020. “We took the day back in a way maybe only important to us. But we share the memory with everybody.”
On this week’s trip to Waverly, Michael heard for the first time the story of Karen Kincaid.
Sitting on the bench by the Bremer Avenue Bridge Sunday morning, I told him the story of Karen’s ring that survived 9/11.
“A lot of my classmates told me about it,” he said. “I first heard it from my brothers and sisters at the WAVP.”
“I didn’t know it then but I have come to know this this weekend,” he said.”I am really sorry for the family… So many things happened on that day, gut-wrenching to us, and here we are 20 years later, we are still grappling with it.”
He wanted to know more and I promised to send him the original story.
THE CIRCLE REMAINS PRESENT
Working on the digital version about the ring story this week, 10 years after I first heard it, has me convinced that encounters of the past and the present — material and spiritual alike — all blend into a much bigger picture of life.
In the process, I had my own sad discovery: I found out that Peter Batacan had passed away in 2018, at the age of 56.
To help me cope with that development, I turned to my old story seeking answers.
Two passages reported there gave me some comfort. One was from an Easter sermon given by the Rev. Jim Donald, the pastor at the couple’s church, that helped Peter start to cope with grief.
Here is how it goes:
It said in essence: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
“These words gave (Peter) strength to help with the eulogy the pastor wrote for a memorial service dedicated to the victims of 9/11 four days after the terrorist attacks.
“’Life is short,’ the pastor said, quoting a Celtic proverb, ‘and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind, and the peace of God will be always with you.’”
The other passage, this one having to do with how Peter treasured the recovered ring, goes like this:
“It gives me a sense of strength and grounding and memory,” he said. “I was in a bereavement group and the counselor gave us each a rock and told us to hold it now and then. It feels smoother with time. I hold it [the ring] in my hand some evenings and just feel the energy from it, very good, positive energy. I’ve gotten in the habit of doing that. The ring symbolizes all these days that I was blessed to be with Karen.
“Nothing could have stopped September 11,” he added. “Yes, there could have been better security, but nothing could have stopped the hatred that was behind it. And the stories that were left were stories of love, not the stories that Osama bin Laden wanted to have the world believe.’”
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I was reassured that the story of Karen’s love is alive, now that she is reunited with her soulmate.
And that others — her family, her community, and those who hear about her for the first time by reading this story — are here to keep that legacy of love alive, weaving its wisdom and its pain and its passion into their own existence and letting it flow into the river of life.