Family of hijack victim Tara Creamer takes courageous steps for a new life

By Pamela H. Sacks

More than 50 photographs of a striking young woman arranged in three collages hang on the wall of the Creamer family’s new home in Shrewsbury.

Tara K. Creamer’s marvelous “Mary Tyler Moore” smile is nearly always in evidence. She is seen partying with her husband, John, at their wedding, and with their children, her sisters, her parents and her in-laws.

A large portrait of Tara hangs on a wall nearby. The sparkle in her dark eyes speaks to her sunny nature, her inclination to get on with things.

The photographs, are, her family says, a source of comfort, a ready reminder of who Tara was and how she would have wanted them to behave during the deeply sad and difficult year since her death on Sept. 11.

“When I have a big decision to make — and I’ve had to make many — I think of her and the way she would have done things,” John Creamer said.

The very display of these photographs is tangible proof of how far the Creamers have come. A senior planner for TJX Cos., Tara, 30, was killed with six of her colleagues when terrorists hijacked and rammed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center on that crystal clear morning.

Soon after the photographs first went up, they came down. Tara’s and John’s son, Colin, now 5, could not bear to look at them. Now, he laughs and talks about his mother.

“I see the way he is, the progress through this year, and I feel so good,” his grandmother, Julie Creamer, said. “He’s so affectionate. That took a while.”

The Creamers, Worcester born and bred, are a close-knit clan, and the tragedy deeply affected them all. Yet, in a series of courageous steps, John and his parents literally uprooted their lives to create a new family unit for Colin and his sister, Nora, 2.

John, 31, sold the house he and Tara and the children shared on Salisbury Street in Worcester. Julie and Gerry, John’s father, left their longtime home on Flagg Street, also in the city. The five Creamers moved together into a spacious house in Shrewsbury.

“I look back on my life with Tara, the 11 years I spent with her — the laughs, the memories. We never had a big fight. We were growing as a family,” John said. “Now, we have a new life. It will be hard, but we’ll make it as wonderful as we can.”

Around the Fourth of July, John was told by the medical examiner’s office in New York that some of Tara’s remains had been identified through DNA testing. He had prayed it would happen, he said, because he needed to have her back with him. The family will hold a private burial next month in St. John’s Cemetery in Worcester.

“It makes you realize, this really did happen,” Julie said. “It was like going through it again, but it was a turning point. Having that closure brought us the ability to move on. She’ll be in St. John’s in a beautiful spot we can visit. When the kids get older, they can leave flowers.”

Last week, at their home, the Creamers said it was extremely difficult to sit down and talk about the loss of Tara and its effect on their lives. Yet, they want the many people who offered their love and support over the last 12 months to know how grateful they are.

“You have to reach out sometimes in order to heal,” Julie said. “And you have to accept and be receptive to people. It’s so helpful and comforting.”

John met Tara, who grew up in Westfield, through friends while the two were students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Their first date was Valentine’s Day 1991.

“He came home to borrow the good car,” Gerry said with a chuckle.

From then on they were a couple. They finished college in 1993 and got engaged over the holidays. They were married the following August.

Tara had started working at TJX right after graduating. She had majored in fashion marketing and was recruited by the retailer. Initially, she wanted to be a buyer, but decided the position involved too much travel. Indeed, frequent absences were out of the question after she and John had Colin in 1997 and Nora in 2000. Her husband and children came first.

“She was that type of mother, she hugged the children and fooled with them and laughed,” Julie said. “She’d drop everything for them.”

As a senior planning manager, Tara traveled twice a year and was starting a three-day trip to Los Angeles to visit TJ Maxx stores when she was killed. She had planned to take a late flight back on Thursday to be home when her children woke up Friday morning.

TJX was a perfect fit, John said, because it is sensitive to family issues. They have a day care at their Framingham headquarters, which Tara had used for the children.

The caring and support the company has shown from the day of the attacks has been phenomenal, the Creamers said.

“They are down-to-earth, real people,” Julie said. “They called right from Sept. 11 and called constantly.”

Recently, TJX dedicated a memorial garden to Tara and the six other TJX women who perished.

“They liked Tara,” John said. “They must recruit a certain type of person. She was a rising star there.”

John, meanwhile, had followed in his parents’ footsteps and had become a teacher in the Worcester public schools. He works at the Comprehensive Skills Center and was out on an errand the morning of the attacks. John had heard that one plane, and then another, had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. He knew it was no accident, but Tara’s flight did not cross his mind. She had left home shortly after 5 that morning.

“I got a page from school — 911. When it comes to me, it’s something serious,” he said.

The call was from the school secretary, Dorry Lemay.

“We were near my house,” John continued. “Dorry said, `John, you need to stay there. Your Dad will be right there.’ Then your heart sinks. I said, `What? What’s going on?’ She said, `I think Tara might have been on the plane.’ ”

Gerry, who is the director of the skills center, had learned that the plane that hit the first tower was Tara’s, after taking a phone call from Tara’s sister, Kellie DiFilippo, who also worked at TJX.

Meanwhile, Julie was at the Midland Street School, where she taught third grade. She noticed faculty members huddled around a TV, but did not know what they were watching.

Then she got a call from her husband.

“Gerry said he thought Tara was on a plane that was hijacked. I didn’t know it had crashed, and he didn’t tell me.”

Julie went straight to John’s house; she has not been back in the classroom since.

John was required by federal authorities to go to Boston the next day to answer questions and provide descriptions of Tara’s luggage, jewelry and personal belongings. His father went with him.

Grief counselors were available, and John talked to them about how to tell Colin. Nora was only 15 months old at the time, but a counselor said she would miss her mother’s smell and touch.

“My focus was, how can I do this without damaging Colin? You have to be truthful,” John said. He told his son, “ `Mommy was away on a trip. She was in a plane crash, and she’s not coming back.’ ”

He did not tell Colin the circumstances of the crash.

“He cried, he sobbed a long time,” Julie said.

At first, he was silent about his mother, but gradually he began to talk about her.

“You let him talk as long as he wants and then he shuts it down,” Julie said. “He’s very defensive of Tara. He tells people, `My mother died. If she could, she would be with us.’ He says it matter of factly.”

Tara’s own mother had died, and she had explained the concept of death to her son.

“He has never asked, `When is she coming home?’ ” Julie said.

In November, John and Gerry went to Ground Zero. There, John had a long talk with a volunteer who had lost his daughter in the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995.

“He had a sense of hurt in his heart. He really made a difference,” John said.

The following month, Julie, John and Tara’s sisters, Ms. DiFilippo, Maureen Shea and Elizabeth Waldo, went to the memorial service held in Lower Manhattan.

After the holidays, with crucial legal matters taken care of, John returned to work. Many members of the faculty had known Tara for years, and John was able to turn to good friends, such as Trevor Friend, Tim Whalen and Ms. Lemay.

“Some took it very hard, but they helped me,” he said. “I was around people who cared, getting back into a routine.”

Friends and family have been key in the family’s recovery.

People from across the country came to a memorial service for Tara at Our Lady of the Angels Church in Worcester four days after her death. More than a thousand people gathered to mourn her.

The Creamers remain in close touch with Tara’s father, James Shea of Westfield, and the other members of the Shea family. John’s brothers, Gerry and Jeff, and their wives, Mary and Gina, have been a constant support. Gerry and Mary had their first child, a daughter, Julia, on Christmas Day, an event that helped the family through the holidays. Jeff and Gina’s daughter, Olivia, is Nora’s age and has been her close companion. John’s aunt, Lois Childs, has been wonderful, John said.

Several of John’s students attended the service in Tara’s memory.

“My whole career has been devoted to alternative students,” he said. “They always have provided me with great fulfillment. They’re tougher kids, but I don’t have a problem talking with them about what happened.”

One of the most difficult decisions, John said, was to put the yellow Cape on Salisbury Street up for sale. He and Tara had just finished redecorating the living room. Tara had painted “Tara loves John” surrounded by a heart on the wall going down the stairs to the basement. Gerry said the new owners have kept Tara’s message in place.

Julie, who had stopped teaching to care for the children and was splitting her time between her home and John’s, urged her son not to make any major changes for a year. John felt he had to.

“It got to a point where it was very difficult for my parents,” he said. “We had to find a place where there was some normalcy. It wasn’t a good scenario for me, or them, or the children.”

The Creamers moved to Shrewsbury in April. Gerry, Mary and Julia moved into the Flagg Street house.

“He initiated this move,” Julie said, “and I think it has been a wonderful idea for everyone. It’s a fresh start for all of us. It’s brought us all together.”

From the day Tara was killed, John has been in touch with the relatives of other victims, and he is a member of an organization called Families of September 11.

“I have great anger about what happened and how it happened, the hurt and harm to so many people,” he said. “I have to grapple with it. Tara was my best friend and the love of my life.”

Tara was well organized and handled the details of family life with dispatch. On the morning of Sept. 11, just before she left the house, she wrote her husband a note reminding him of various small chores.

She ended with this: “I miss you. I love you. Good-bye.”