Monica Iken-Murphy was in her Riverdale apartment the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when she got a call from her husband, Michael.
“The phone rings a little before 9, and he says, ‘Everything’s OK, everything’s fine,’” Monica would later tell a documentary. “And he said, ‘Well, put on the TV.’ And the last thing he said was, ‘People are jumping out the window. I have to go.’
“It was the first time in my life I was ever frozen in my space of thought, where I couldn’t think straight.”
Michael, a bond broker who worked in the south tower of the World Trade Center, never called back. It was the last time Monica ever spoke to him.
“When I realized he wasn’t coming home, I wasn’t well,” Monica told The Riverdale Press. “So, I really wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t functioning.”
Shortly after the terror attacks, Monica was joined by family and friends in her West 246th Street home near the Henry Hudson Parkway. It was there she had a life-altering realization.
“I was kind of losing it a little bit,” she said. “Because delirium sets in when you don’t really eat. I laid down, and then that’s when the moment came. And God was like, ‘You’re going on a mission.’ And then the next thing you know, I go out and tell my family and friends, ‘I’m going on a mission … they’re not building over dead people so long as I walk the planet.’”
Monica turned that vision into a reality by starting September’s Mission — a non-profit organization that spent a decade fighting to ensure a respectful memorial was built on the footprint of the fallen World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan — instead of new commercial or residential buildings.
That mission was accomplished in 2011 when the 9/11 Memorial & Museum was completed. Now she has a place to both mourn and celebrate her husband on Saturday’s 20th anniversary of Sept. 11. Michael’s birthday was Sept. 8, so Monica expected to start her remembrance early by visiting the memorial and celebrating what would have been his 57th year.
September is extra significant for Monica — It’s also the month she and Michael first met at the now-closed Park Place restaurant in Riverdale back in 1999.
“September is kind a wash for me because it’s all those things in one,” Monica said. “But at least I can go and celebrate his birthday (now), not his death.”
But the road to actually building this place where Monica can mourn Michael and the nearly 3,000 others lost was a long and hard one.
The days that followed the tragedy thrusted Monica into the national spotlight for telling media outlets “they’re not building over dead people.”
“Then the next thing you know, I’m on the cover of Newsday,” she said. “So, that catapulted me to getting (The Press) and News 12 Bronx coming to my house. And that’s where the mission started. It happened that quickly, and I just dove into it.”
The main goal of September’s Mission was to build a memorial park on the 16 acres that made up the former World Trade Center site using public-private partnerships. The organization also set up what it called the “Living Memorial,” a website where families could upload information about loved ones they lost in the attacks.
Monica’s first step in her long battle for what ultimately became the 9/11 Memorial was securing the necessary acreage — something that took years of fighting, she said, because there were many stakeholders who had their own ideas for how to redevelop the site. They included the site’s owner and developer Larry Silverstein, Manhattan Community Board 1, former mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, former Gov. George Pataki, and many others.
Pataki appointed Monica to the Family Advisory Committee of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. — which oversaw the redevelopment of lower Manhattan after 9/11. In Monica’s many leadership roles, she regularly met with and tried to balance the interests of the various political, business and family leaders involved in the development.
Monica constantly pushed back against business interests trying to build the new World Trade Center exactly where the old towers once stood.
“So, it wasn’t easy,” she said. “I got 8 acres out of 16, and you know they didn’t want to give that to us. They wanted to put the memorial in — first it was Governors Island, then it became Battery Park — and I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m taking a boat to my husband’s memorial. That’s not happening.’”
After finally securing the acreage, Monica immersed herself in almost every aspect of building the memorial and museum. For instance, Lower Manhattan Development hosted an international competition to choose a design for the memorial — ultimately won by architect Michael Arad. Yet, even after his selection, Monica constantly found herself protecting Arad’s design from alterations by the others involved in the project.
“I was working very closely with Arad,” she said. “I learned more about architecture than most humans.”
To this day, Monica has stayed involved with the 9/11 Memorial as a member of its board of trustees. Once it was completed, Monica finally had time to go back to her previous career in education, founding the Iken Science Academy, an Upper East Side preschool dedicated to Michael and others lost on 9/11.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the city last year — and Monica was no longer able to teach kids in person — she converted her preschool space into a 9/11 “healing center.” During the many months of lockdown, she worked with volunteers to organize all the paper materials she accumulated over the years of working on the memorial to create a publicly accessible research library.
“I had people here in the winter doing work,” she said. “Just volunteers — sorting, highlighting, organizing. I had my board members here. We were having a party in the pandemic.”
Monica also built a podcast studio in the space, launching her own audio program, “Once Upon A Time.” She hopes to use the platform to show how one can turn their grief from a tragedy like 9/11 into something positive. And showing people how to follow in her footsteps is ultimately the mark Monica wants to leave on the world, in memory of her husband, Michael Iken.
“I survived by having God in my life and also doing something positive, as opposed to burying my head in the sand and doing nothing,” she said.
“A lot of people couldn’t do anything, and I get it. But I want to help those people.”