A 9/11 son, whose photo broke hearts, reflects on 20-year anniversary

Peter D. Kramer

"Is there anything you want to say to your mother?"

What could the 8-year-old boy in the yellow raincoat possibly say, in a cemetery, amid a steady downpour, in front of all these people?

All his life, it had been just the two of them. His mother had bought her boy his comic books, taught him to love Spanish food, sung to him, laughed with him.

They'd gone to Disney World two months earlier. The boy's mother had saved up to take him there, the Happiest Place on Earth, to celebrate how far they'd come, how they'd beaten the odds. 

Days before, on a bright Tuesday morning, she dropped him at her mother’s house on Saw Mill River Road in Yonkers and drove to work as an EMT. He took the bus to school. Third grade.

Then she was gone.

Which is why the boy in the yellow raincoat was here beside his grieving grandmother, who had asked if he had anything to say to his mother, soulmate, champion.

Words failed. He leaned forward on the white casket, laid his head on gently folded arms, and wept.

A camera shutter blinked open and closed. Journal News photographer Stephen Schmitt's image of that moment — of a child grieving a mother lost to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — would be published in People magazine, The Miami Herald, and The New York Times, breaking hearts wherever it appeared.

People asked: Did you see the photo of that boy?

Anna Jager holds her grandson, 8-year-old Kevin Villa, as he cries over his mother's casket at her funeral Sept. 14, 2001, at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson. Yamel Merino was an EMT with MetroCare who died at the World Trade Center.

Older than she'd ever be

Today, that 8-year-old boy is a 28-year-old man, older than his mother when she died.

He thinks about that sometimes, how she was 24 when she ran toward the burning South Tower of the World Trade Center — not away from it — to treat stunned and disoriented evacuees.

You have to love your job to deal with the things an EMT deals with, he's decided.

His full name is Kevin Anthony Villa Merino Jager (though he goes by Kevin Villa), and he is the son of Yamel Josefina Merino Jager (listed on the 9/11 Memorial as Yamel Josefina Merino), a beater of odds.

All these years later, the boy whose tears spoke volumes at Mount Hope Cemetery that day in the rain has found his voice, speaking eloquently about his mother, her vivacity, the power of her example. It’s a topic he knows well; his answers have been honed by repetition.

Kevin Villa, 28, and his grandmother, Ana Jager, hold the American flag that draped the coffin of his mother, Yamel Merino, in Jager's Yonkers home. Villa, who has spent most of his life talking about his mother's sacrifice, said he doesn't blame people for wondering what happened to the little boy in the yellow raincoat.

Being "that boy in the photo" meant growing up quickly, learning to answer questions on every 9/11 anniversary. His grandmother, Ana Josefa Yager — the other subject in that photograph, leaning forward, her mouth agape in agony — isn't comfortable doing it.

She is grateful people still think about her daughter, about her family, but there's too much emotion, she says, and there’s the language barrier. A native of the Dominican Republic, she laughs when she quotes the singer Celia Cruz: "My English is not very good-looking."

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