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Sunday, September 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The missing: Lives in limbo

NEW YORK — Missing. The word has lost its hopeful luster since the days when families plastered the city with photographs of those who didn't come home on the night of Sept. 11.

"If you've seen her, call us," the fliers begged, offering optimistic details on the eye color, scars and freckles of the lost. "With any information please call."

This Sept. 11, fewer than 100 names will remain on the missing list. No one disputes they are gone, but the city will not list them among the confirmed dead until remains are identified or their grieving relatives bring themselves to apply for a death certificate.

"It's very hard to live with the fact that somebody can just disappear like that without a trace," said Dee Ragusa, whose son Michael Ragusa, 29, is among a number of firefighters still classified as missing. "He just went 'poof' in the air one day."

In their hearts, the Ragusas know that Michael is gone. But like many families whose loved ones vanished Sept. 11, they admit they still look for his face in the crowds. Some widows said they even called homeless shelters.

Ragusa said relatives aren't in denial about Michael's death. But they've debated whether he could have amnesia or might be scared to come home.

"There's just that little bit of hope. Because he hasn't been found, you say 'maybe,' " she said.

The victims on the missing list do not have court-issued death certificates generally for two reasons — either their families don't want to apply or haven't been able to, according to Police Inspector Jeremiah Quinlan, head of the trade center missing-persons investigation.

More than 60 of the missing are rescue workers. Many of their families have held memorial services but have not applied for the death certificates that state, "Body Missing."

"I'm not delusional or kidding myself. I know he was there and I know he's not coming home," said Donna Hickey, whose husband, Capt. Brian Hickey, is among the missing. "But it's not going to change anything; it's not going to be this light going on, 'Oh, OK, now I know.' It's a piece of paper that doesn't tell us anything."

Hickey's family mourned him at a memorial service in Bethpage, N.Y., on June 11, nine months after he disappeared, on what would have been his 48th birthday. His wife and four children laid to rest a coffin that holds his crushed, dirt-caked helmet — the only sign of him found in the ruins.

Hickey said she eventually will apply for a death certificate, at her lawyer's urging. But she resents the idea that her husband is categorized as missing.

"To this day, I have not been told my husband's gone," Hickey said. "I haven't been told he's dead.... "

Among the most mysterious stories of people listed as missing in the World Trade Center attack are a baby and his 4-year-old brother, who would be the only children killed in the towers if their grandmother's fears prove true.

Eleven-month-old Edward Vanvelzer, his brother Barrett and their father, Paul Herman Vanvelzer, were reported missing by the grandmother, who lives in California, according to Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner.

It is not clear what the family may have been doing at the trade center. Borakove said the Medical Examiner's Office does not know whether the father worked in one of the towers or was visiting from out of town and took the boys there as tourists.

Although city officials are not certain the Vanvelzers died, their names and those of the other missing people will be included when all victims' names are read aloud at a ceremony this week.

On Friday, the city revised its list of dead and missing to include 2,801 names, 18 fewer than it reported last month. The total fell as some people reported missing were found alive, suspected fraud cases were discovered and duplications were eliminated.

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