OGUNQUIT, Maine — The weather was perfect on the patio overlooking Perkins Cove when Donato Tramuto and his partner, Jeff Porter, hosted a dinner party at their home with about a dozen guests on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2001.
“I have been living in Maine for the last 30 years,” Tramuto said in a recent interview, as he described the party in vivid detail. “There was never a night like that before, and there has never been a night like that afterward. I can’t explain it.”
Tramuto, now 65, recalled raising a glass to acknowledge the exceptional evening he and his friends were enjoying, with a toast that seemed at the time to be purely celebratory.
“I toasted to them, and I said, ‘Let’s make a toast to this beautiful evening. It will never get better than this,'” he said. “And, unfortunately, it has never gotten better than that night.”
After their meal, guests enjoyed banana splits for dessert, which were a big hit for the three young kids at the party, Tramuto said. One of the children, 3-year-old David, came to the party with his dads, Ron Gamboa and Dan Brandhorst. The three of them were staying with Tramuto and Porter for the weekend and had planned to fly home to Los Angeles on Monday, but Tramuto persuaded them to extend their stay and fly back on Tuesday.
Tramuto was accustomed to flying from Boston to LA on a regular basis for work, and he planned to travel with his friends on this leg of their trip. But a toothache prompted him to change his flight at the last minute. He flew out on Monday instead to make time for a dentist appointment in California before the conference he was scheduled to attend that week.
Sticking to the itinerary they had hammered out over the weekend, Ron, Dan and David boarded United Flight 175 in Boston on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. About 30 minutes after takeoff, five hijackers broke into the cockpit, then they took control of the plane and crashed it into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, about 17 minutes after hijackers had crashed another plane into the North Tower.
Nearly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks, making it the deadliest terrorism incident in history. Those who lost their lives left behind a horrified nation and grieving loved ones, some of whom felt the combined weights of both grief and a sense of guilt.
“I was probably at the darkest moment of my life because I took a lot of this and blamed myself,” Tramuto said, recalling how he was the one who persuaded Ron, Dan and David to visit Ogunquit that particular weekend, and he was the one who got them to change their flight, and he was the one who made it out alive by leaving a day earlier. “I lived for months with guilt,” he said.
Tramuto said he was at Ron and Dan’s home in LA when he called their family to break the news. At first, they didn’t believe him because they didn’t know the travel itinerary had changed. Eventually, though, Tramuto convinced them that Ron, Dan and David had, in fact, perished.
As he has processed his 9/11 grief over the years, Tramuto said his intellectual side has known he’s not to blame for the loss of his friends, but that doesn’t mean his emotional side has spared him from feelings of culpability.
“When I replay that, I replay it with a lot of intellectual assessment now,” he said. “But the emotions for many, many years … I owned it.”
Despite his extensive public speaking experience, Tramuto said he didn’t really start opening up to talk about his 9/11 experience until seven or eight years ago.
“Even today, the pain is there … I will have to live with this memory for the rest of my life. But I don’t have to live with the guilt,” he said.
“I think that’s why I’m so busy,” he added.
Tramuto has been busy, indeed. In addition to his work as a health care executive, he set up the nonprofit Health eVillages, and he founded The Tramuto Foundation in honor of Ron, Dan and David.
The foundation launched a scholarship program that grew to add a mentorship component and then branched out to award grants to various organizations that make the world a fairer and more just place, he said. Health eVillages works internationally to improve health care access and quality through mobile health technology.
Keeping busy these past 20 years has been part of how he deals with the pain from what happened.
“That it is the best way to process and to channel my life in a direction that can help people. … If I sat back and thought about this, it would be very, very painful and, quite frankly, a waste of time,” he said. “Because I can’t change what happened. I can change the course of my making the world a better place, but I can’t change the course of what happened on 9/11.”
Gala: ‘Remember, Reflect and Hope’
To mark the 20-year anniversary of the attacks, the Tramuto Foundation will host a gala at the Cliff House Resort in Cape Neddick, with the help of some celebrities.
Joining Tramuto and his guests will be renowned journalist and event emcee Katie Couric, actors and activists Matt McCoy and Charles Shaughnessy, former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
More:Katie Couric to headline Tramuto Foundation gala to mark 20th anniversary of 9/11
Although the original plan was to have 400 attendees, that number has been reduced to 175 in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and people will have to be tested for the virus before entering the venue, Tramuto said.
Anyone who cannot attend in person can still participate in an auction online. The items up for auction include pre-paid luxury vacations, a conversation with Couric, a virtual conversation with actress Kate Mulgrew (“Star Trek: Voyager,” “Orange Is the New Black”), a luncheon for four at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and more. Bidding began on Saturday, Sept. 4.
For more detailed descriptions of all auction items and to attend the virtual portion of the gala, visit: event.gives/tf20thgala.
The event, which will be more commemoration than celebration, will showcase the work of nine organizations that have received more than $1 million in Tramuto Foundation grants. The gala will also highlight more than 50 past recipients of the foundation’s annual college scholarship.
Tramuto said he respected Robert Kennedy because he watched the way he emerged from his grief over the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, with a sense of urgent action.
“Bobby Kennedy didn’t start out as a civil rights leader, but he died a civil rights leader,” Tramuto said. “I didn’t start off as a philanthropist, but I hope that when I die, that’s what people remember me as. You can transform your life through tragedy.”