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Chicago’s secret 9/11 memorial a place to heal

9-11 survivor Dan Bacso lays flowers near three-tree memorial thwas planted remembrance five years ago Northerly IslMonday August 29 2011.

9-11 survivor Dan Bacso lays flowers near the three-tree memorial that was planted in remembrance five years ago on Northerly Island, Monday, August 29, 2011. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 4, 2011 6:51PM

Chicago has a secret place where mourners go to remember America’s greatest tragedy.

On Northerly Island, three trees nestled along lush prairie grass stand as the city’s only memorial to the people who died when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

Politicians didn’t plant the saplings — an American Linden, Apple Serviceberry and Eastern Redbud, one for each place terrorists attacked.

There wasn’t a public dedication ceremony, not even a press release. And there’s no marker telling of the trees’ significance.

Still, the quiet grove just east of Burnham Harbor surrounded by a sweeping skyline view is sacred ground for the local survivors and 9/11 victims’ families who met in the years after the attacks at monthly support sessions at Willow House, a grief-counseling center in north suburban Riverwoods.

“Just the fact that I know those trees are there and why they are there is important to me. It’s kind of like our little secret,” said Sue Mladenik, whose husband, Jeff Mladenik, an associate pastor at Church of Christ in Oak Brook, died aboard hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, which struck the WTC North Tower. “No one flocks to it. No one knows it’s there.”

The idea to plant the “living memorial” was born out of frustration five years after terrorists struck American soil, sending a ripple of grief across the country.

“People tend to be really surprised to learn that there are even people in Chicago affected. That the attacks were so far reaching — to California and beyond — is something that most people don’t recognize,” Willow House Executive Director Stephanie Norris said. “We were frustrated and thought there should be something in Chicago.”

The first five years after the attacks, counselors at Willow House treated 150 people who were directly affected by the attacks — survivors and family members of victims.

For World Trade Center survivor Don Bacso, the monthly group sessions helped him start to heal.

“It made me feel good to know I wasn’t alone here,” said Bacso, 45, of Dyer, Ind. “I could talk about the dreams I was having, the guilt I felt for being a survivor. I could talk to people who were going through the same thing I was going through. I can’t say enough what they did to help us out.”

Norris and Pentagon survivor Ryan Yantis asked the Chicago Park District to plant the memorial trees. The process was wrought with bureaucracy. The group could plant the trees, but a memorial marker wasn’t allowed. The park district’s tree-planting policy is to give a dedication certificate, but not to install plaques, which “clutter the area” and take up room that could be used to plant more trees, a park district spokeswoman said.

The folks at Willow House were disappointed, but not discouraged.

“We took the path of least resistance. This was important. Chicago lost a lot of people. Sept. 11 changed Chicago. It changed Northerly Island. Meigs Field was closed for a lot of reasons, but one is [former Mayor Richard Daley] didn’t want a plane taking off and going into a building,” Yantis said. “We wanted a living, growing monument in the heart of the city. I hope the city realizes it helps people heal.”

The trees were planted in a solemn ceremony just before the monthly group sessions were scheduled to end because the federal funding for the program ran out.

“We wanted a place where they could go and visit since so many don’t have graves that marked their loved one’s death,” Norris said. “There are a lot of people who need to make some kind of connection. They don’t want us to forget what happened, nor should we.”

When Mladenik, Bacso and Yantis recently returned to the secret memorial, they found the trees alive, but slightly struggling in the soil that once was a landing strip.

They each laid bouquets of summer flowers at the base of the trees, pausing a moment to quietly reflect.

“I think about how long they’ve been there, which means how long [my husband] has been gone. It’s a rude awakening. But they’re living. I like that it’s alive and it grows. … I thought they would be a little more taken care of. It’s ironic,” Mladenik said. “I guess it doesn’t matter if anyone else knows it’s there, but I would like a marker. That would be nice.”

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