'May his memory live in our hearts forever'

Rockville Centre teen raises money for Tunnel to Towers foundation in honor of uncle who died on 9/11

South Side Middle School eighth-grader Eleni Maria Panaghi, 13, raised more than $6,000 for the Tunnel to Towers Foundation in honor of her uncle George Merkouris, who died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
South Side Middle School eighth-grader Eleni Maria Panaghi, 13, raised more than $6,000 for the Tunnel to Towers Foundation in honor of her uncle George Merkouris, who died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Courtesy Koula Panaghi

Eleni Maria Panaghi, 13, was not yet born when her uncle, George Merkouris, died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but that didn’t keep her from collecting money in his memory to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death.

Merkouris, who was 35, was working for the financial firm Carr Futures in the north tower of the World Trade Center when it was struck by American Airlines Flight 11. In her uncle’s honor, Eleni, an eighth-grader at South Side Middle School, decided to raise $3,500 — $100 for every year her uncle lived — for the Tunnel to Towers Foundation.

“I wasn’t born during the attack on our nation on 9/11, but I heard many stories about that terrible day from school, and especially my family,” Eleni wrote in an email. “I felt it was important to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and to honor the memory of those that we lost on that tragic day, most importantly my Uncle George.”

Her uncle, Eleni wrote, has been described to her as “an amazing man with a personality larger than life” — confident, kind, compassionate and funny. To reach her fundraising goal, she handed out jars to friends and family members to fill with loose change, and also launched an online campaign on the Tunnel to Towers website. She ended up dramatically surpassing her goal, raising $6,428 as of last Sunday for the foundation, which honors the memory of firefighter and Rockville Centre native Stephen Siller, who died in the attacks. Tunnel to Towers pays off home mortgages for families of those who have died in the line of duty.

Because she collected more donations than she expected, Eleni decided to buy pins and thank-you cards for members of the Rockville Centre police and fire departments, which she delivered to them on Labor Day. She said she would continue to raise money until Sept. 30.

Eleni’s parents, Koula and Christopher Panaghi, have frequently talked with her about what happened on Sept. 11, and have told her about Merkouris, and about the first responders who died in the effort to help others. Their stories inspired Eleni to give back.

“I am beyond proud,” Koula said. “Words can’t express how proud I am of her that she came up with the idea, that she went through with the idea and that she’s passionate about it. We’re very family-oriented, and she wanted to do this in his memory, and we support the police and fireman and the first responders. I’m very, very proud of her.”

Though Merkouris was actually married to Koula’s older cousin, who is also named Koula, Eleni refers to him as her uncle. Her mother met him when she was 6. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was 25 and taught at a school in Brooklyn that had a view of the World Trade Center from her fifth-floor classroom. She said she thought it was an accident when the north tower was hit, but began to panic 17 minutes later when the south tower was slammed by United Flight 175. She recalled frantically calling her family, and while she was unable to get through initially, they eventually connected. Her cousin was living in Levittown at the time, but Koula couldn’t get out there because of road closures.

Instead she waited all night as the family hoped they would receive news that Merkouris had escaped. The next day, some of her family members gathered in Levittown, while others headed to Lower Manhattan and searched area hospitals in the hope of finding Merkouris. Eventually they came to terms with the fact that he had died, but vowed to keep his memory alive.

“It’s very important to see his legacy continue,” Koula said. “George was an incredible man. He lit up the room. He would help anyone. We kept saying, ‘George is OK because he’s helping people down at the towers.’ That’s something he would do. He would do anything for anyone.”

Eleni said she hoped to have her late uncle’s spirit, and that she was honored to be able to give back by raising funds for Tunnel to Towers. “It makes me proud that I’m able to help our nation’s heroes who have sacrificed their lives for our safety and freedom,” she wrote. “I can’t think of a better way to show my love and to pay respect for my amazing uncle. May his memory live in our hearts forever.”

To learn more about Eleni’s fundraiser or to donate, visit bit.ly/3tFQSnu.