‘It was bigger than just a death’: Cranston man recalls the day he lost his mother in 9/11 attacks

Remembering 9/11

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — It was the day that turned Cranston resident Matt Newell’s life upside down.

His mother, Renee Newell, was one of the 13 people from Southern New England killed in the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago.

Renee, according to Matt, was on board Flight 11 that morning. The American Airlines employee was traveling to a conference in Las Vegas when the plane was hijacked.

“It was a day I’ll never forget,” Matt said.

Matt was in fourth grade and on the playground at St. Rocco School in Johnston when his mother’s plane crashed into the side of World Trade Center North.

“All I heard from my teacher was that I had to go to the principal’s office,” Matt recalled. “My dad was there to pick me up early. She walked me up to my classroom to get my bag and lunchbox. I was excited as all heck, getting to go home from school early was sometimes a blessing, but unfortunately, it was not.”

Matt said his father was completely silent the entire ride home, and after watching the aftermath of the attacks unfold on TV, the two of them went to his aunt’s house.

“At that time, that was the hardest part of the whole thing, just seeing the grieving that my grandmother, aunts were going through. It was almost like hysteria, it wasn’t crying,” he said. “It was yelling and screaming. There were a lot of emotions and as a 9-year-old, it was really tough to comprehend, but I knew it was bigger than just a death.”

When asked if he still gets angry about the loss of his mother, he said absolutely.

“Sometimes later at night,” Matt added. “I try not to get angry about it because it’s in the past. What am I going to get angry about now?”

Matt was two months shy of turning nine when his mother died. He said the 9/11 attacks were extremely hard for him to comprehend, especially at such a young age.

“It was a terrorist attack,” Matt said. “It didn’t make any sense, and I think it took me a while to truly understand why and how. I think that was the toughest part, because there were really no answers for some time.”

“There was just so much my family could say to me or us because we’re still trying to put the pieces together,” he continued. “How did this happen? Why did this happen? I think that the toughest part to try and get over.”

Matt said to him, not recovering his mother’s remains is a double-edged sword. While he would like to have a piece of her back, his family still found comfort in knowing she wasn’t suffering.

But questions still remain.

“It was the unknown. The grieving was so intense because you truly didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “Even years down the road … is someone going to pop up? Survivors … that was one of the toughest things because there was so much unknown for so long.”

What helped Matt through the grieving process was the tree planted outside St. Rocco School in honor of his mother and the thousands of other Americans who died that day.

“Every time someone walks by there will have to hear the story of why this is here, why it was dedicated to not just not my family, but the other people who lost their lives,” Matt said.

While Matt is now old enough to comprehend what happened, he still wishes he could have one last chance to talk to his mom.

“One thing I would love to do with her, this is in the future, but at my wedding have that dance with her,” he said.

Matt knows his mother is proud of the man he’s become.

“She’s got the best seat in the house and there are a lot of moments where I feel her on my shoulder,” Matt said. “Those bring smiles to my face. It happens often.”

“I always find the clock at 9:11 most of the time and I know it’s a sign, her saying ‘hi, how are you?’ and I would think she’s happy of where I am as a family guy and a man,” he added.

Matt said the St. Rocco community was there for his family in the aftermath of the attacks. A prayer service honoring all of the 9/11 victims will be held outside the school this Friday at 8:30 a.m.

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