Victims of Their Grief
02/04/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
For Patricia Flounders, the death of her husband, Joe, 46, in the World Trade Center disaster had been a prostrating blow. In the weeks afterward, Pat, 51, was barely able to put aside her grief and depression long enough to get through her daily routines. But on Dec. 1, at-a Manhattan memorial service she had lovingly planned for Joe, a vice president for Euro Brokers who had worked on the 84th floor of the South Tower, she appeared finally to gain some measure of comfort. "She seemed to be better and accepting," says friend Lisa Lewis of the service at Trinity Church—just blocks from the WTC site—that drew several hundred mourners. "She was much more upbeat. She said she was doing okay."
But it now appears that Pat had, in effect, been planning the memorial for herself as well. Just over a week later, sometime on the night of Dec. 9, she shot herself with a pistol in the bedroom of the dream house in East Stroudsburg, Pa., that she and Joe had lovingly renovated.
Flounders's death made terribly clear that, four months after Sept. 11, the aftershocks of those awful events are still being felt. Indeed, Flounders was not the first widow to take her life. Prasanna Kalahasthi, 25, a dental student at the University of Southern California whose husband, Pendyala "Vamsi" Vamsikrishna, 30, was killed on the hijacked plane that crashed into the North Tower, hanged herself on Oct. 19. No one, of course, can say exactly why the two women chose to end their lives, except that each seemed particularly despairing of going on without the love and support of her spouse. "We kept telling her that she would survive," says Flounders's friend Maureen McGrath. "But she kept saying, 'What am I going to do without my husband?' Her grief just carried her away."
The Flounderses had met in 1977 and quickly hit it off. Joe, fresh out of Dartmouth, was working as a currency trader at a brokerage firm on Wall Street. Meanwhile Pat was working at a bank in New Orleans. Their jobs brought them into daily phone contact. Soon, though, she was visiting him while on business trips to New York City. After three years of a long-distance relationship, they decided to marry. "They were deeply in love," says Joe's mother, Lila May, 77. "She was the focus of his whole life." Pat moved to New York City and they took a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. The couple decided not to have children (Pat had a son, Christian Croner, 29, from a previous marriage, from whom she was estranged).
Pat and Joe were often seen in the neighborhood walking their beloved shih tzus Suzy Wong and Fu Manchu. But their marriage was also deepened by the uncommonly difficult times they shared together. In 1993 Pat was diagnosed with breast cancer, which eventually required a double mastectomy. The disease was believed to be in remission. Last spring she had a pacemaker implanted. In all she had undergone 14 operations in recent years, with Joe constantly on hand to minister to her. "When she was in the hospital," says Lila May, "he would sleep there in the room."
Four years ago the couple bought the three-bedroom ranch house on a wooded lot in Pennsylvania. It meant a three-hour commute each day for Joe, but he didn't care. He and Pat loved being in the outdoors hiking, and he spent several hours each week fixing up the place. She also started taking flying lessons, and in their spare time Joe and Pat would play golf.
It was from their home that Pat saw her husband die. On the morning of Sept. 11 she was watching television news when the first hijacked plane crashed into the North Tower. She immediately called Joe and urged him to get out. "He said one of his coworkers was having a problem," Pat told PEOPLE in an interview two days later. "He was in distress." It turned out that the employee had suffered a seizure or a panic attack, and while most of the other workers at Euro Brokers had cleared out, Joe had stayed behind to lend a hand. Fifteen minutes after her initial call, Pat watched in horror as the second plane slammed into the South Tower, followed by the collapse of both buildings.
In the weeks following her husband's death, Pat fell into a deep depression, sleeping much of the day and then calling friends and acquaintances at all hours of the night, desperate for some relief from her pain. She took tranquilizers and began drinking. One of those who came to her assistance was Kelly Lewis, the state representative for the Flounderses' district, and his wife, Lisa. Kelly helped Pat sort out the family's finances, and Lisa became one of her emotional touchstones. She arranged for counseling sessions at nearby Pocono Medical Center, but Pat always found an excuse not to go. Lisa, like other friends, knew there was a risk that Pat would try to kill herself. "I wanted desperately to get her help," says Lisa. "But she wasn't a danger to anyone else so there was nothing that the hospital could do." So all that anyone else could do was hope for a rally that never came.
Much the same spiral seemed to afflict Prasanna Kalahasthi after the death of her husband, Vamsi. Both natives of India, they came together through an arranged marriage, yet once they met, they really did fall for each other. "They were very much in love," says Vamsi's father, Pendyala Muralikrishna, 57, an official with the Indian Defense Ministry in the town of Chennai. "Everyone said they were meant for one another."
The families arranged the union in 1997, but the couple decided to hold off on the wedding for a few years. At the time, Vamsi was living in the United States, where he had studied engineering, while Prasanna was attending a dental college in India. Their plan was for her to finish that program before they got married. In 1999 they were wed in a Hindu ceremony in her hometown of Chilkaluripet. Soon after, Vamsi brought his new bride back to the United States, where she entered USC.
In recent years Vamsi had been working for DTI, a software company in Los Angeles. He had been on a business trip in the Boston area when he took off on American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11. Before departing he left his wife a cheerful phone message: "I'll be home soon, sweetie.... I'll be there before lunchtime." Given the time difference, though, she did not immediately hear it. A few hours later she got the terrible news that Vamsi's plane had been hijacked and crashed.
To Prasanna's brother Chandra Kalahasthi, 26, an engineer in San Jose, she seemed determined to pull herself out of her grief. "She was trying to cope," he says, "but she couldn't take the pain." It broke his heart, says Chandra, to hear Prasanna talk about the tragedy. "She said several times to me, 'I spent more time waiting to marry him than I did being married to him,' " he recalls. On Oct. 19 Prasanna was found dead in the apartment she had shared with Vamsi. She had hanged herself with a length of nylon rope. There was also a sealed note to her brother. "She left a letter to me saying, 'I'm so sorry,' " says Chandra.
Now the sorrow rests with the friends and family both women left behind. Lisa Lewis views what happened to Pat and Joe Flounders as, simply, the saddest of love stories. "He was her life," says Lewis. "She probably felt it was hopeless."
Matt Birkbeck in East Stroudsburg, Lori Rozsa in Lantana, Fla., Karen Bates in Los Angeles, Jean McFarlane in New Delhi and Rebecca Paley in New York City