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Former Niles Mayor Andrew Przybylo wonders how niece, a 9/11 victim, might have changed the world

Vanessa Kolpak, who grew up in Lincolnwood was 21 when she got to New York to work at an investment firm at the World Trade Center three weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Vivian Kolpak holds a framed picture of her daughter Vanessa Kolpak, who was among those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
Vivian Kolpak holds a framed picture of her daughter Vanessa Kolpak, who was among those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
Al Podgorski / Sun-Times file

For Andrew Przybylo, it started like any normal morning. His kids were racing to get ready for school. He was preparing to head out to the family business in Niles. And the TV was on, though no one was paying attention to it.

Then, he got a call from his sister Vivian Kolpak.

They owned the White Eagle, a banquet hall and restaurant on Milwaukee Avenue, and usually got there around the same time to open up.

But not today. This was Sept. 11, 2001, and she was calling, worried about her daughter, his niece. Vanessa Kolpak, a 21-year-old St. Ignatius College Prep grad who grew up in Lincolnwood, had been living in New York for just three weeks after landing a job with the investment firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. And she was in the firm’s 89th-floor office in the south tower of the World Trade Center when a jet struck the north tower that morning.

“I got a call from her saying she wasn’t coming in,” says Przybylo, who is a former mayor of Niles. “She told me that Vanessa was in the south tower, and she was told not to evacuate. The south tower didn’t fall at that point, and she was really worried about Vanessa.”

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Vivian Kolpak said her daughter was told not to leave the office even as people just two floors below were allowed to evacuate.

“Vanessa called me after the first building was hit, and she just told me, ‘Mommy, I’m alive.’ . . . She started crying and saying she was seeing people falling, and I said, ‘Find someone you know, and get to a safe place.’ I thought she was on the ground looking up. ... I didn’t even suspect she was still in the building.”

Vanessa Kolpak (from left) with her father Paul Kolpak, mother Vivian Kolpak, sister Alexis Kolpak and brother Todd Kolpak.
Vanessa Kolpak (from left) with her father Paul Kolpak, mother Vivian Kolpak, sister Alexis Kolpak and brother Todd Kolpak.
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Vivian Kolpak told the Sun-Times in 2011 that her daughter was brilliant and had plans to make a fortune on Wall Street and then donate her money to fight breast cancer and to help fund school music programs. She also said she was relieved when President Barack Obama announced that the architect of 9/11, Osama Bin Laden, had been hunted down and killed, but she wasn’t happy.

“It’s a little bit of closure,” Vivian Kolpak said at the time, something she said her family had lacked because her daughter’s remains never were found. “We never found her, so we have been lingering, sort of in a limbo.”

In the 20 years since the World Trade Center attacks, Vanessa Kolpak’s family has tried to keep her memory alive — and even hold onto a sliver of hope that somehow she might still be alive.

Former Niles Mayor Andrew Przybylo says his niece Vanessa Kolpak’s death on Sept. 11, 2001, still leaves him wondering how she might have changed the world
Former Niles Mayor Andrew Przybylo says his niece Vanessa Kolpak’s death on Sept. 11, 2001, still leaves him wondering how she might have changed the world
Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times file

“I think to this day she keeps hope alive,” Przybylo says of his sister. “They’ve kept Vanessa’s car and keep it in their home in Arizona.”

“Why keep your daughter’s car?” Przybylo says. “We do know that she is gone. Nonetheless, hopes springs eternal.”

The Sun-Times couldn’t reach Vanessa Kolpak’s parents. They’ve made it a tradition to travel on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, to never be in Lincolnwood, where they still live, where Vanessa Kolpak grew up.

Instead, they use the day to celebrate the life of their daughter, Przybylo says, believing she is traveling with them in spirit.

Vanessa Kolpak’s cousin Kiki Przybylo says that, for years, the family held fundraising events in her cousin’s name to help support music scholarships and breast-cancer research.

“She wanted to have maximum impact on the world and those around her,” says Kiki Przybylo. “She brought up the people who surrounded her, pushed them to be their best.”

Andrew Przybylo remembers his niece as highly intelligent, witty and caring.

“She had a lot of sympathy for people, and I think her upbringing and schooling had a lot to do with it,” he says.

Vanessa Kolpak (center) with her grandmothers on her 21st birthday.
Vanessa Kolpak (center) with her grandmothers on her 21st birthday.
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Kolpak graduated with high honors from St. Ignatius and then Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She played the violin for 12 years and had performed at Orchestra Hall every year since she was just 4 years old.

Przybylo wonders how his niece might have changed the world if she’d had the chance.

Over the years, it has gotten easier to face her loss, he says, and the family has come to appreciate life just a little bit more perhaps than they had.

“There are days where I don’t think about 9/11 or the failing of Afghanistan and how profoundly pointless that military debacle was,” Przybylo says. “The fact is life is a gift, and you need to live it to the fullest and do as much good and as much as you can before you leave it.”

Vanessa Kolpak and her parents Paul and Vivian Kolpak.
Vanessa Kolpak and her parents Paul and Vivian Kolpak.
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