Written by Joanna Hishon
“We all remember meeting Lesley. If Lesley was in a group you remembered not just that she was beautiful, you remembered her spirit”
That opening quote is part of a reading from Lesley Thomas’s memorial service, in the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks. The letter was written by Ann Snyder, one of the original founding members of AWNY, and was held in Hoboken, New Jersey where Lesley lived before she lost her life on September 11, 2001.
It is a little-known part of AWNY history that Lesley was one of its early members. She was the first newsletter editor and was intricately involved in its early development, and was a greatly loved member of what was then a small group of Australian Women who lived New York and relied on each other for support, a social network, and essentially a ‘family away from family’ – all the core purposes that AWNY maintains to this day.
Lesley Thomas (pictured below) also worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial services firm, and was often in the office at 7.00AM as her role involved working very closely with Europe. Cantor Fitzgerald occupied floors 101 to 105 of the World Trade Center’s North Tower and lost 658 employees in 9/11, more loss of life than any other company impacted by the attacks. And Lesley was one of them.
I often refer to 9/11 as the ‘JFK event’ of my generation – my parents remember where they were and what they were doing the moment they heard JFK had been assassinated. I remember where I was and what I was doing when I learned of the first plane hitting the North Tower. Many people recall watching in disbelief as they witnessed, live, the second plane hitting the South. It’s a defining moment for us all and on this 15 year anniversary, stories of ‘where and when’ are often recalled and shared. The tragedy takes on a whole new meaning when someone you know – someone close to you – lost their life that day. Ann Snyder, Edwina Sulimerski, and Shele Gehrke, three founding members of AWNY who were all great friends of Lesley, shared with me their memories of the hours and days directly after the attacks; frantically calling around to each other in the hope someone had managed to reach Lesley and disprove what they feared to be true, helping to set up make shift trauma centers in the hospitals around union square to treat the injured people who never came, watching helplessly as the Wall Street traders made their way up town – on foot – suits covered in dust and faces covered in disbelief, the overwhelming sense of panic, the desperate people passing out hundreds of pamphlets printed with the faces of their missing loved ones.
During the conversation I was privileged to share with these three incredible ladies, it was clear to me the disbelief, shock, and profound sense of sadness for the loss of Lesley is something they will never quite be able to put into words.