Fifteen years later, family, school recall Sept. 11 victim as someone who ‘always looked to help’
BLOOMFIELD HILLS — On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, the world changed for Americans.
The unimaginable devastation and loss of innocent life as a result of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil has left a deep, permanent impression, but none more permanent than the loss of a loved one.
For the Kondratenko family of Romeo, the date marks when Suzanne Kondratenko, a 1992 graduate of the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills, lost her life.
Kondratenko, a consultant for Chicago-based Aon Corporation, was in the South Tower of the World Trade Center doing consulting work for Keane, Inc., when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the building, 17 minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower.
“She was in the English/communication field, had a client in New York City, and was working on the 96th floor when the first plane hit,” said Sr. Bridget Bearss, RSCJ, head of school at the Academy of the Sacred Heart and dean of students when Kondratenko attended the academy.
“She and a colleague started down the steps,” Sr. Bearss said. “On the 78th floor, there was a woman in trouble; she had trouble breathing. Suzanne stopped to help the woman, and when her colleague got out of the door and looked behind him, Suzanne wasn’t there. Then the second tower was hit.”
Following the attack, a memorial service for Kondratenko was held in Chicago and at Sacred Heart, where Sr. Bearss said her memory continues to live on.
Sr. Bearss said Kondratenko made the most of her time while at Sacred Heart, becoming student body president and working at the front desk during events. Despite her two elder sisters choosing to attend Bloomfield Hills Marian High School, Suzanne was determined to chart her own course.
“She was vibrant, full of life, there was this great energy wherever Suzanne went,” Sr. Bearss said. “She lit up the room wherever she went. She really lived the values of caring for others. She had a great connection to the school.”
Wanting to continue that great connection, in 2009, the academy named the school’s infant classroom and day care room after Kondratenko — “Suzanne’s Nest.”
“Following 9/11, we wanted to do something to pay tribute to Suzanne, and her cause of protecting life in all forms,” Sr. Bearss said. “Suzanne loved children, so the infant/toddler room became ‘Suzanne’s Nest.’ I was dean of students when she was president of the student body. She worked the desk every night from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., so her and I spent a lot of quality time together.”
The Kondratenko family was pleased to find Suzanne’s memory would continue at Sacred Heart through Suzanne’s Nest, and two of her nephews now attend the school.
“We feel strongly that Suzanne is in the room,” said Eric Kondratenko, Suzanne’s father. “Every time we go to a function at the academy, we also stop by Suzanne’s Nest, asking how things are. Sometimes they don’t even know who we are, but we like to stop by.”
Upon graduating from Sacred Heart, Suzanne Kondratenko attended St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind. The third of eight girls in the family, Suzanne was a trendsetter, being the first to go to Sacred Heart, and four of her seven sisters followed. Two of her sisters were at Sacred Heart when the attacks occurred.
“Suzanne lived life to the fullest, and she’d like those kids (in the room) to do the same; you really had to have known her,” Eric Kondratenko said. “There was no stone unturned in her life, and she took advantage of a lot of things. She studied abroad in Rome; some of her colleagues who worked with her called her a spitfire, and she was a spitfire. She needed to participate in the community, and she always looked to help. She was just so full of life.”
The Kondratenkos now split their time between Michigan and Chicago, where Suzanne’s youngest sister, Paige, attends a special needs school. Eric said Suzanne always had a special place in her heart for Paige, who was 7 years old when the attacks occurred.
Eric and his wife, Patricia, have made the trip to New York City every year for the Sept. 11 anniversary — the one exception being the dedication ceremony for Suzanne’s Nest. Patricia Kondratenko said it was right to dedicate the infant/toddler room in her daughter’s honor.
“Suzanne loved children. She was very entertaining with her sisters, very family-oriented, especially with her little sister, Paige,” Patricia Kondratenko said. “She loved the school so much. I know she would be so thrilled to be part of the community in that sense. I’m sure her spirit is there.”
As the country reflected on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Patricia said the pain of a lost daughter doesn’t go away, but there is reconciliation in knowing Suzanne is remembered by the school she loved, setting an example for the next generation about how to live a full life of love and cementing her very real presence in the community.
“The loss is so great; it doesn’t get any easier as the years pass,” Patricia said. “She was just a wonderful human being, and she is just loved by her family. We’re so happy her legacy is continuing at Sacred Heart, and people can learn about Suzanne at Suzanne’s Nest.”