Lithuanians are among victims in skyscraper rubble

  • 2001-09-20
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - Several Lithuanian citizens and Lithuanian-Americans were caught at the very center of last week's tragic events in the United States. At least one Lithuanian-American man is dead and a woman with Lithuanian citizenship is probably also among the victims of the collapse of the World Trade Center.

A Los Angeles financier of Lithuanian origin, John Wenckus, 46, was one of the 81 passengers on the first airplane to hit the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, the daily Lietuvos Rytas reported.

Wenckus' great grandparents, the Venckus family, fled Lithuania for the United States in 1917 and had their last names changed to Wenckus by U.S. immigration officials upon entering the country.

The killed financier's father, who has worked at a Massachusetts telephone company for many years, said his family became proud Lithuanians after their historical fatherland proclaimed the re-establishment of its independence in 1990.

A Lithuanian citizen, Jelena Melnicenko, was on the 97th floor of one of the World Trade Center's twin-towers when the hijacked American Airlines Boeing 767 hit the 80th to 85th floors. As yet there has been no news of her.

Melnicenko, 28, known to colleagues as Helen Melnick, was working in the insurance company Marsh and McLenan. She and her husband immigrated to the United States in the mid-90s. After the tragedy her farther, Vilnius University professor Vladimiras Gavriusinas, went to New York in search of his daughter.

"Thousands of people called the Foreign Ministry to ask about their relatives," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Petras Zapolskas.

The Lithuanian media are full of reports of those Lithuanians who managed to escape death.

Rimantas Sileikis, a German-born Lithuanian citizen, started to run down the stairs from the 90th floor of one of the towers after the first plane hit the other tower. On the 48th floor, he said, security staff started to shout that the building was safe and urged everyone to return to their offices.

While some obeyed, Sileikis did not. The second plane hit his tower when he was on the 47th floor. He reported that another Lithuanian, Alius Silbajoris, also managed to escape. But there is no information about another Lithuanian worker at the center, Ruta Draguneviciute.

Sileikis estimated that in all, between 10 and 15 Lithuanians were working at the World Trade Center.

Paulius Silbajoris escaped from the same skyscraper's 91st floor in an elevator, which subsequently stopped functioning.

Arijana Samsoniene, who recently emigrated from Lithuania, was fortunately late arriving at her workplace in the World Trade Center that morning and observed events from a nearby street. Lithuanian-American Rima Varankaite-McKean was another one late to work who was entering the World Trade Center when the first plane struck.