Jill Abbott and her daughter, Mikki, rest on a bench at Winterthur’s Enchanted Garden. Abbott’s co-workers at Winterthur donated the bench, which is dedicated to the memory of her father.
photograph by Pat Crowe II
Every time Jill Abbott looks at her daughter, Mikki, “I see what 10 years is.”
It is, for her and for the people who loved her father, a lifetime, however short so far, of joy.
Mikki was born Jan. 3, 2002, the first grandchild of Abbott’s father, Michael San Phillip. It was the same day the city of New York notified his family that his wallet had been recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. San Phillip has been missing since they were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Mikki certainly was a light for everybody,” Abbott says. “It helped so many to know she’s part of our life.” There is only happiness and gratitude in her voice.
Abbott, senior events planner for Winterthur, was working in her office that morning when a colleague entered with news. “I’ll never forget,” says Abbott. “She said, ‘Jill, an airplane hit the twin towers.’ I said, ‘That’s crazy. Let me call.’”
She tried her father’s work phone in the south tower, without success. Abbott then dialed her sister, who worked in the building next to his, also without success. “I thought, Huh, that’s weird.” In the meantime, she searched for information on the Internet.
“I was concerned, of course. Something was happening, but I didn’t know the magnitude.” When she at last reached her mother at her home in Ridgewood, N.J., the news was grim: “Daddy’s tower just collapsed.”
Abbott rushed to Ridgewood to begin a search for him. She thought San Phillip might have been, like so many others, walking on the West Side Highway, that he would call as soon as he could. A call never came.
Abbott spent the next few days contacting area hospitals, coordinating search efforts by friends and family, checking Internet updates, interviewing on NBC. “At the time, I knew I was going to find my dad,” Abbott says. “I didn’t want him to think we’d given up.”
On the seventh day came news: Searchers had found the body of Herman Sandler, a principal in Sandler O’Neill, where San Phillip worked as a trader. His desk stood next to Sandler’s. Abbott believed she might soon hear something about her father. She never did. At St. Regis Hotel a couple days later, where she had gone to give blood for DNA identification, she had a conversation with two gentlemen who had escaped from the south tower. “There was something in their tone,” she says. “They spoke in the past tense. That was the turning point for me. I absolutely knew we wouldn’t find him.”
The following Columbus Day, the family held a memorial service. About 1,100 people attended. There was no casket, no wake, no headstone. There was, Abbott says, nowhere to go.
Yet, “That was a good day. As horrific as it was, it was a good day because you saw how many people loved my father and loved us.”
As far as anyone can tell, Michael San Phillip was the only expecting grandfather killed on 9/11. Jill was six months pregnant. Mikki was to be San Phillip’s first grandchild. She was named Michele in his honor.
On Sept. 11 of last year, Abbott asked Mikki if she would like to write a letter to Poppa Mickey in heaven. It is included in “The Legacy Letters,” written by 100 members of victims’ families, published by Penguin in August as a 10th anniversary tribute. Brian Curtis, A Delaware native, edited the book.
“When I was in pre-school, my teacher told the class what had happened on September 11th,” Mikki wrote. “When I got home from school, I asked Mommy if that is what happened to you. Mommy was crying and I started to cry but she told me that you were in Heaven, and that you loved me before I even knew you. … I tell Mommy all the time that I met you, and I feel like you gave me a hug.”
In Winterthur’s Enchanted Garden for children there stands a bench, donated by Abbott’s coworkers and dedicated to San Phillip. Abbott visits often. “That’s kind of my place to go,” she says,
San Phillip had looked forward to taking Mikki there. In Mikki’s face, Abbott sees her father.
“She is a beautiful tribute to him,” Abbott says. “She definitely helped me. She is our little angel.”