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Tragedy again touches family

The cell phone that sixth-grade teacher Nancy Cregan has kept on since the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks rang Monday morning while she sat in her classroom at Westlake Christian School.

It was a friend calling with news about the crash of American Airline Flight 587, and a troubling question.

"Isn't that your old neighborhood?" the friend asked.

Not again, Mrs. Cregan thought. Not again.

It was nearly two months ago that the World Trade Center attack claimed the life of Mrs. Cregan's brother-in-law, her husband's sister's husband.

Mrs. Cregan, 32, turned on the television in her classroom. She immediately recognized the grammar school she attended as a child, St. Francis de Sales, in the background. Her sister lives nearby.

"Two months later, and it's an almost identical scene," she said. "It's just too unbelievable."

Just as when she got word of the World Trade Center attack, Mrs. Cregan's students were taking a physical education class. She didn't want a repeat of that day, when her students returned to find her sobbing, worrying about the fate of her brother-in-law, a partner at Cantor Fitzgerald, who worked on the 105th floor. The bond trader was the hardest hit firm in the attack, with 657 of its roughly 1,000 employees killed, including Mrs. Cregan's brother-in-law. He left behind a wife and three children.

"We were just getting our lives in order," Mrs. Cregan said. "Now, it seemed like the same thing happening again."

Mrs. Cregan spent a tense couple of hours Monday in the school's administrative offices trying to reach her sister at her home telephone, by cell phone and even by fax, said principal John McLay. But she could not get through.

"I felt for her," McLay said. "Everyone did. It was just so unbelievable that it could happen again. She really is having a tough time."

Finally, she reached another sister, who reported that their sister was okay but that it was a very close call.

Her sister, Mary Howley, also a schoolteacher, later related that the house shook with what sounded like a bomb. A piece of the plane's engine fell on a house catercorner to hers, less than a 100 yards away.

It was Veterans Day, so Howley's two children were home from school. Distraught, the three jumped into the car in their pajamas and Howley drove, barefoot, to her mother's house nearby. En route, she got into a small fender-bender, but emergency workers told her to keep moving.

Back in Palm Harbor, it so happened that Mrs. Cregan's two sisters-in-law were visiting her husband's parents, who also live in Palm Harbor. News of the plane crash was particularly difficult for the sister-in-law who had lost her husband on Sept. 11. So Mrs. Cregan decided to help them drive back to New York.

"When the plane crashed (Monday), it was like the first day (of the terrorist attack) for her," Mrs. Cregan said. "She cried the whole drive up here."

The three drove through the night Monday and arrived in Rockaway by mid-afternoon Tuesday. After passing several checkpoints to get into and through Rockaway, Mrs. Cregan found a town overrun with police, firefighters and reporters.

She was struck by the randomness of the damage.

"You have houses that are gone next to houses that are perfect," she said.

For Mrs. Cregan, who grew up in Rockaway, the chaos was surreal.

It was a town that was hard hit by the Sept. 11 attacks. More than 100 people from Rockaway died that day, she said, most of them firefighters.

She knew many of them well. In fact, six of those who died in the World Trade Center attended her wedding in 1991.

"This is a town that was still struggling from the devastation of the World Trade Center attack," she said.

Her husband, Kevin, an accountant with Pricewaterhouse Cooper, spent a month in New York after the attacks to help his widowed sister. He also attended about 10 funerals.

"It's bizarre," she said. "If you knew my town, it's so small. There are no malls. There are no movie theaters. It's a little town in the middle of nowhere. The odds of anything happening here were impossible."

_ Times staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farleysptimes.com.

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