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Saint Mary’s alumnae remember friend killed in attacks

Caitlin Housley | Monday, September 12, 2011

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Saint Mary’s alumna Sarah Sullivan Bigelow turned on the news to watch an interview of Jack Welch on The Today Show.

However, news coverage quickly turned to a terrorist attack on the World Trade Centers. As Bigelow watched the plane crash into the first tower, her mind turned to her former roommate at Saint Mary’s, Suzanne Kondratenko, who worked in Manhattan.

“I got in my car to go to work and by the time I stopped for gas, I thought, ‘This isn’t right,'” Bigelow said. “I called [Suzanne’s] cell phone and called [it again], and then I called her office. [An administrative assistant] said they couldn’t take my call, so I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Oh this isn’t good.'”

Kondratenko, a 1996 alumna, was in the second tower when the plane hit and died in the attack.

As Bigelow waited to hear from her friend, she clung to hope.

“I just can’t imagine what everybody went through trying to get down those stairs literally as the building is crumbling,” Bigelow said. “The grieving process was so unique, because clearly we all were clamoring for answers and hoping for survivors.”

Only a few hours later, Bigelow said she confirmed her former roommate was in the second tower after speaking with Kondratenko’s sister.

To this day, Bigelow said she still thinks of her friend. The women lived together during their senior year at Saint Mary’s, and Kondratenko was a bridesmaid at Bigelow’s wedding. Bigelow described her friend as “a pistol.”

Bigelow’s oldest daughter, now 6, is named “Suzanne,” after Kondratenko.

“Now I’ve got this 6-year-old Suzanne who’s precocious, bookish and beautiful,” Bigelow said. “It just makes me laugh because there are so many times I can picture Suzanne saying, ‘Oh honey, you don’t know what you’re in for.'”

While the 6-year-old does not know the full story of her namesake yet, Bigelow said her daughter understands what a special person Kondratenko was.

“This woman says to my daughter, ‘Who are you named after?'” Bigelow said, “‘Oh well I’m named after Suzanne. She was my mommy’s best friend, and she died. And sometimes Mommy’s really sad when she thinks about the fact that I’m named after Suzanne, and other times she’s really happy.'”

Kondratenko studied abroad in Rome during her sophomore year at Saint Mary’s. As a way to remember her friend, Bigelow started the Suzanne Kondratenko Memorial Rome Program Scholarship.

“When you lose somebody, remembering [them] feels like a pleasure but an enormous pressure,” Bigelow said. “You want to remember somebody in the way they would want to be remembered, but I think it was a pretty easy decision to think that we wanted to try to help people who were studying abroad with some of the extra costs because that was an experience that she really valued.”

Maureen Bransfield, Kondratenko’s roommate in the Rome program, now lives in Rome. She said she thinks of Kondratenko often.

“It didn’t take long to realize that [Suzanne] was a very special and unique person,” Bransfield said. “Not only was she extremely intelligent, but she also had a very quick wit and clever sense of humor.”

Kondratenko came from a special family, Bransfield said.

“I don’t feel right saying something about Suzanne without expressing what a loving and extraordinary family she has,” Bransfield said. “I think the best thing we can do for her, and for her family, is to let them know that Suzanne is not, and will not, be forgotten.”

Bigelow said she admires the Kondratenko family for their strength in the grieving process.

“When we lost [Suzanne], it was really upsetting,” Bigelow said. “Her parents waited until, I believe, the following March to have her funeral. It just seemed so unreal to not have any evidence or any remnants. It was a really heartbreaking time. I have a great deal of admiration for her family and their strength.”

Bigelow said the publicity of the Sept. 11 attacks also made the grieving process more difficult.

“The press on 9/11 and all the remembrance and hope is really hard to watch,” Bigelow said. “I want to do due diligence to Suzanne’s memory, but it’s just so painful to watch footage.”

Though the memory of her best friend’s death is painful, Bigelow said she is certain of one thing.

“We gained an angel that day, and I’m sure we’ve given her many a good laugh,” she said.