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The photo of a grieving 9/11 son was unforgettable. 20 years on, he recalls his mom's sacrifice.

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"Is there anything you want to say to your mother?"

What could the 8-year-old boy in the yellow raincoat possibly say, in a cemetery, amid a steady downpour, in front of all these people?

All his life, it had been just the two of them. His mother had bought her boy his comic books, taught him to love Spanish food, sung to him, laughed with him.

They'd gone to Disney World two months earlier. The boy's mother had saved up to take him there, the Happiest Place on Earth, to celebrate how far they'd come, how they'd beaten the odds. 

Days before, on a bright Tuesday morning, she dropped him at her mother’s house on in Yonkers, New York, and drove to work as an EMT. He took the bus to school. Third grade.

Then she was gone.

Which is why the boy in the yellow raincoat was here beside his grieving grandmother, who had asked if he had anything to say to his mother, soulmate, champion.

Words failed. He leaned forward on the white casket, laid his head on gently folded arms, and wept.

A camera shutter blinked open and closed. Rockland/Westchester Journal News photographer Stephen Schmitt's image of that moment — of a child grieving a mother lost to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — would be published in People magazine, The Miami Herald, and The New York Times, breaking hearts wherever it appeared.

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Older than she'd ever be

Today, that 8-year-old boy is a 28-year-old man, older than his mother when she died.

He thinks about that sometimes, how she was 24 when she ran toward the burning South Tower of the World Trade Center — not away from it — to treat stunned and disoriented evacuees.

You have to love your job to deal with the things an EMT deals with, he's decided.

His full name is Kevin Anthony Villa Merino Jager (though he goes by Kevin Villa), and he is the son of Yamel Josefina Merino Jager (listed on the 9/11 Memorial as Yamel Josefina Merino), a beater of odds.

All these years later, the boy whose tears spoke volumes that day in the rain has found his voice, speaking eloquently about his mother, her vivacity, the power of her example. It’s a topic he knows well; his answers have been honed by repetition.

Being "that boy in the photo" meant growing up quickly, learning to answer questions on every 9/11 anniversary. His grandmother, Ana Josefa Yager — the other subject in that photograph, leaning forward, her mouth agape in agony — isn't comfortable doing it.

She is grateful people still think about her daughter, about her family, but there's too much emotion, she says, and there’s the language barrier. A native of the Dominican Republic, she laughs when she quotes the singer Celia Cruz: "My English is not very good-looking."

The task of talking falls, instead, to her grandson. Fourth anniversary. Fifth anniversary. Tenth. Twentieth. The answers come easily now.

He wants to make his mother proud, to let her rest easy, to fulfill that collective promise we all made to never forget, even as 9/11 shifts from lived history to historical event. And so he tells his story, her story, and how he has come to think about the woman who didn't come home.

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A standout, standing 5-foot-4

The odds were never in their favor.

Yamel was pregnant at 16, in a household where that reality came with consequences. Her parents would help, but Ana made it clear: She would raise her own child. 

And she had.

Eight years later, the 24-year-old mother had everything to live for. Mother and son had their own place, not far from her folks. She had gotten her GED, went back to school, had a job she loved and her own car.

Co-workers knew Yamel was special, the kind of EMT who laughed and smiled and stuck out her tongue when someone snapped her photo in the back of the ambulance. She’d show up with McDonald’s for the ambulance crew, her treat. She’d sing to calm the people she was dispatched to help.

At 22, she had been honored as MetroCare’s EMT of the Year, a standout among standouts, though she stood just 5-foot-4.

Her boss, Jim O'Connor, knew he had a winner on his team, so much stronger than she looked, capable of so much more. Look at what she'd already done. And what she was planning to do: She wanted to become a nurse.

As an EMT, she met people on their worst days and helped them get through it. But there was no getting through Yamel's worst day.

On Sept. 11, O’Connor broke the news to Ana and her husband, Leslie. The next day, crews found Yamel’s body in the rubble near the fallen South Tower, one of the first bodies recovered.

O’Connor said those who went to the right were spared, those who went left perished. Yamel went left.

Hers would be one of the first funerals in what would be a seemingly endless parade of funerals that fall, that winter, that spring.

So many bagpipes. So many flag-draped caskets. So many lines of grieving families and first-responders in Class A dress uniforms.

But to the solitary boy in the yellow raincoat, only one funeral mattered.

His mother's voice

Time, which has helped Kevin to find his voice in speaking about his mother, has taken away his memory of the sound of her voice.

Photos, he has. There are plenty of pictures of Yamel in hats; her mother loved to give her hats to wear.

Ana remembers the hats, the laughter, the 24 years she had with her daughter. Joyful things, sad things, everything. She loves her grandson, but aches for Yamel.

She'll be talking and, suddenly, finds herself crying, she says. The pain is an everyday thing. It doesn't go away. Not after a year, 10 years, 20 years.

"To lose a child, you don't wish that to your worst enemy," she says. "You'll never be the same. You'll never be the same."

For years, Yamel's gravestone had a daily visitor, her father, Leslie. Now retired and 83, he still frequently visits.

Kevin comes on Mother's Day, and on Yamel's birthday, and every Sept. 11, when chairs are set up for friends and family to stop and remember, as they will on this, the 20th anniversary. 

A recent visit found mums and daisies in front of the headstone, into which has been etched the image of a young girl wearing a cloche with a smile that will never dim.

A heart as big as an ocean

And the beauty of a rose

We will always love you.

‘Mr. O’ and an Oriole

When Baltimore Orioles first baseman David Segui opened a copy of The Baltimore Sun at the end of that world-shattering week 20 years ago and saw the photo of the boy in the yellow raincoat, he saw a boy like his own, and his heart broke a little, too.

Within days, Segui would invite Kevin to the stadium in The Bronx, to lighten the boy's burden with a timeless distraction: a ball game. 

The boy from Yonkers would sit in the Orioles dugout — in an Orioles uniform, on Cal Ripken’s last trip to Yankee Stadium — even though baseball wasn't his thing. Players who knew his last name was Villa spoke to him in Spanish, a language he didn't speak, not knowing he'd pronounce his name VILL-uh, not VEE-ya.

Ana and Leslie lost a daughter. Kevin lost a mother. But they are people of faith, convinced they have gained angels in the form of friends and family.

O'Connor took Yamel’s loss personally, still does. He and his wife, Gail, became part of the Jager family the day he climbed the steps to deliver the worst possible news. They had no reason to go above and beyond, except for a promise O'Connor made to Yamel, to look after her family.

He became “Mr. O,” a constant in their lives.

It was O'Connor who helped arrange that day in the Bronx with Segui, O'Connor who introduced Kevin to President George W. Bush at the 2005 White House ceremony where his mother was awarded the 9/11 Heroes Medal of Valor, who urged the reluctant student on through graduation from high school, who gave Kevin a job for a while. Kevin's apartment is in the same complex as the O'Connors.

The O’Connors have never forgotten. Not 9/11, not the first MetroCare EMT to die in the line of duty, not the little boy in the yellow raincoat, not a promise made.

Family and friends have been there, Ana says, but sometimes, even family and friends don't do what you expect them to do when you need them the most. But the O’Connors have been there through all the most trying times. And they are still there.

'I can't complain'

Kevin doesn’t blame people for being curious about whatever happened to "that boy," for wondering how he’s doing whenever 9/11 rolls around. When you break people’s hearts, they want to check in.

He's doing fantastic, he says. There's a lot of people worse off out there.

Kevin tried college, but it didn't take, worked for a while on the computers at O’Connor's ambulance company. Now, he’s a supervisor at Prime Flight, a company that helps wheelchaired passengers on and off flights at Westchester County Airport. 

He moved out on his own four years ago, loves his job, has his family, "Mr. O" and others in his corner. The family weathered the pandemic unscathed, apart from the six months Kevin was furloughed.

Some of his young co-workers were born after 9/11, and only know the event from YouTube videos, not from seeing it unfold before their eyes on live TV. It's the difference between a history lesson and a lived event, which makes telling his mother’s story all the more important.

He laughs easily, and often. Even when framing the event that made him the face of unspeakable grief, he puts listeners at ease with another time-tested answer.

"I jokingly tell people I got all my bad luck out when I was 8," he says. "Going forward, the only thing I have now is sort of good luck and neutral luck. So I really can't complain."

Decisive action

Ana remembers her daughter as fearless, always looking for ways to help, even on a trip to the supermarket when she wasn't on duty.

They saw children sitting in a parked car. Their mother had left them unattended while she went inside to shop. Ana says Yamel noticed puffs of smoke and fire from under the car. Thinking fast, she got the kids out before the fire erupted.

She remembers being petrified watching her daughter spring into action, but Yamel told her later that her only thought in the moment was how horrible she would have felt if she had done nothing and something terrible had happened.

Kevin is sure that that's the kind of thinking that sent his mother toward the South Tower on that Tuesday morning when the world changed, that she knew what she was getting herself into but that inaction wasn’t an option.

It's all death in the end and it's all sad, he says, but it's comforting knowing that she made that decision to do what she did.

He is his mother's son, but he tries not to compare himself to her.

"I can't jump that high," he says. "I can't climb that high."

Follow reporter Peter D. Kramer on Twitter: @PeterKramer

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