This Valentine’s Day we celebrate the marriage of Gene Cassara and Barbara Murphy, who renewed their wedding vows atop the World Trade Center in an unforgettable ceremony seven months before 9/11. In February 2001 Barbara and Gene won a contest to join other couples at Windows on the World, the restaurant high atop the North Tower, for a Valentine’s Day celebration.
Barbara and Gene recently donated several items to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, including a typed submission they sent in as part of the competition, an invitation they receive to attend future Valentine’s Day events at Windows on the World, and a folder of photos from the event.
Their relationship started back on December 17, 1982, when the two native New Yorkers—Gene from Queens and Barbara from the Bronx—happened to cross paths at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan. Gene was out to dinner at the time. Barbara had decided to stop in for a drink with her friend after missing an express bus.
Gene came up to Barbara and complimented her smile. “And that kicked off everything,” Gene said. They married at St. John’s Church in the Bronx five years later on May 23, 1987.
Flash forward 14 years to January 2001. Barbara had seen an ad in The New York Daily News for a Valentine’s Day contest aimed at couples. The winners would spend the February holiday exchanging vows at Windows on the World.
“One of the things we need to touch on to start the story is that I like to enter contests and win contents,” Barbara said.
Barbara’s penchant for entering contests had won the couple trips to places across the world, including Paris, Las Vegas, and Australia.
Barbara wrote the following poem for her submission. It references the FDNY, NYPD, and other city workers—all the more poignant after 9/11.
Our love is a fire that New York’s Bravest (Firefighters) cannot extinguish
Hot and consuming, never a moment to languish
Our love is a felon that New York’s Finest (Police) cannot lock up or arrest
Breaking all rules and curfews, never a moment of rest
Our love has the power that New York’s Strongest (Sanitation) cannot match
Strong, powerful, mighty, not like that wimp Richard Hatch!
Our love is like an inmate that New York’s Toughest (Correction) cannot confine
Waiting to be released and set free, much like a fine wine
Our love is the World Series that even the Yankees cannot beat
Rushing in to home plate, never skipping a beat
Our love is the Superbowl of all-time romance
Crossing over the goal line, taking our chances
We should celebrate our love, lips ready and curled
By Sealing It With a Kiss on Top of The World
When Barbara didn’t hear back, she called the coordinator of the event— Jurriaan Veth, the director of marketing and sales for Top of the World.
“We would love to do this together. We want to share this kind of memory together,” Barbara told Jurriaan. “He humored me a little bit. I just wasn’t letting go.”
Ultimately Jurriaan agreed that the couple was perfect for the event. She even persuaded him to bend the rules—the event was aimed at newlyweds, but longtime husband-and-wife Barbara and Gene would be able to renew their vows instead.
On Valentine’s Day the couple made their first trip to Windows on the World, where they and the other contest winners celebrated their nuptials with gifts and a champagne reception.
“We enjoyed the beauty of the day,” Barbara remembered.
Barbara, who worked near Broad and Water streets, was in lower Manhattan seven months later on the morning of September 11. She had planned to go to the sprawling shopping mall beneath the World Trade Center.
“I got off at the Wall Street exit, and I was going to walk down to the concourse and do some shopping there. When I exited the subway station, people were looking up in the sky, and you could see debris coming down, and you just asked, ‘What happened?’” Barbara said. “And as I was standing there looking, that’s when the second plane hit, and you just got that feeling at that point that there’s something terribly wrong with the world.”
Barbara eventually got a hold of Gene by phone, who urged her to “walk north and continue walking” to Grand Central Station. “Don’t stop,” he told her.
“I was over by the South Street Seaport when the building collapsed and the cloud came to us,” Barbara said. “You hear this rumble and you see this darkness coming at you, so everybody ran for cover as best you could.”
“When the cloud came it was very surreal, because you heard the building come down and didn’t know what the sound was. It was just this loud rumbling, and then you had the cloud and you couldn’t see anything, but everything was quiet. Everything just became really, really quiet. It was very eerie. And then the cloud passed. We kept our faces covered as best we could, and then you just keep moving along and try to get out of the city.”
“She wore a hole in her shoe from walking, because she walked from downtown to Grand Central Station,” Gene said.
Barbara took a Metro-North train to the Yonkers train station, where her husband picked her up around 4 p.m.
“I was covered in soot,” Barbara remembered. “I didn’t look good, but I made it home.”
Her office was closed for nearly two weeks. Gene, who was retired, accompanied Barbara when she returned to work. “I was just not sure if I could take the whole trip again,” she said.
At the time Gene told her: “Back on February 14, we did such a special thing, such a nice thing, by having our marriage vow renewed, and now we have a tragedy on our hands.”
The couple said they ultimately decided to tell their story because they wanted to show the good that the World Trade Center brought to many people’s lives.
“There’s good memories and I think that’s really important. It’s important for everybody, but I think it’s important for the people who were here in New York on that day, because they have that cloud memory. They have that tragedy memory that will never go away.”
“I just think this is a good, happy thing that happened, and people should know that there was a lot of happiness with the World Trade Center,” Gene said.
A little over a week after Gene and Barbara renewed their vows atop the North Tower, they received a letter in the mail. It was from the event coordinator, Jurriaan, who invited the couple to return each Valentine’s Day to celebrate their anniversary:
Dear Barbara and Gene,
We hope you enjoyed your wedding ceremony at the Top of the World Trade Center on Valentine’s Day as much as we did.
As promised, enclosed is an entrance ticket for you to visit the TOP on each future Valentine’s Day, your wedding anniversary.
We hope to do this many more years and hope in a small way you want to be a part of this event again in the future as well, but only as visitors!
We wish you all the best and a happy life together!
With kind regards,
Months later, in the wake of 9/11, Barbara and Gene wanted to make sure that Jurriaan was OK and to meet with him to thank him “for making such a beautiful memory for us.”
“It was important for us to find him, because we wanted to know that he survived,” Barbara said. “It took about a year and a half, and we found that he was finally working at the Empire State Building, doing something similar.”
Barbara called him, not sure if he would remember her. He remembered her well as the Valentine’s Day contestant who insisted she and her husband were a perfect match for the event.
Barbara and Gene ended up meeting Jurriaan and his new wife for dinner. The events of 9/11 inevitably came up, but the four of them mostly talked about marriage and Barbara and Gene’s memories of renewing their wedding vows atop the World Trade Center.
“It was an emotional thing,” Gene said. “We all cried.”
“But we laughed too,” Barbara said. “And we toasted to love.”
By 9/11 Memorial Staff