BERKELEY — Like many people who had lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks, Fran Sills found herself looking for answers and comfort.

Her nephew Matthew Horning had been in the World Trade Center and died that day.

For Sills, the journey for answers took her to the Jersey Shore on a day off from school while she was serving as an acting principal in Branchburg, just weeks after the attacks. She said the beach has always been a special place for her family, and before she left Sills found a large shell, and with a sharpie inscribed a message to her beloved nephew before throwing the shell in the ocean and leaving.

"You are an inspiration to all when knew and loved you," she wrote.

"I went there and I walked on the beach trying to come to grips with all that had happened," she said. "I just wrote the message on the shell and I just remember feeling that he's out there someplace."

Horning's remains were never found, and as she sat on the beach that day, Sills said, she "wished his parents and his sister peace because as you can imagine they were going through tremendous anguish."

"I threw the shell into the ocean just praying for peace, not only for myself but also for his family and peace on the world," she said. "That was kind of a catharsis for me. I just stepped back, got in my car, and went home."

With the memory of her nephew still fresh, but the shell a distant memory, Sills said she was surprised to learn it washed up on the Shores of Island Beach State Park almost 16 years later.

This past Friday, Serafina Riccobono of Lodi posted a picture on a shelling group on Facebook of the shell, which she said she found on Island Beach State Park. On the shell, Sills had written Horning's date of birth and date of death, as well the message.

Riccobono said she found the shell that Friday night while out shelling with her parents, who had recently moved to the area. On their hands and knees, Riccobono said, they came across many shells, and the one with Horning's information didn't seemat all special at first — it was covered in sand.

She said she found the writing after cleaning the shell.

"We were really emotional," she said. "Everyone I kept showing the shell to was really in shock that we were able to find something like that that was so sentimental."

Sills said she found out about the shell on Saturday morning when she got a message from her niece, Dana Crepeau — Horning's sister. The message told Sills to find the group on Facebook.

"I did that and I'm going, 'I don't believe this,'" she said. "What was a private moment of what I thought of little significance turned into something that people view as hope and a spiritual experience and an uplifting experience."

Crepeau said she first learned about the shell on Friday night, when Riccobono and another member of the group contacted her through Facebook. While she did not know her aunt had written the message and put it in the ocean, she said she was not overly surprised by the gesture.

"It's within her character. She's thoughtful and reflective and she said it was an intimate gesture, something she felt she needed to do but not with the idea that it would kind of come back some day," she said.

Sills said she had long since forgotten about the shell, and said the fact that it not only washed up on the beaches of New Jersey but seemed to be in such good condition, especially after superstorm Sandy made the whole thing that much more surreal.

"I have to think that that shell is in tact for a reason," she said.

In her message on the shell Sills called Horning "an inspiration to all who knew and loved you." More than a decade later she said that is how she remembers him.

"He was a remarkable young man," she said. "He was wise beyond his years, and he was 26 I think when he died."

Since she first learned about the shell, Crepeau said, she has received a lot of positive feedback from the members of the page.

"It's remarkable really because I have an opportunity to share his story with so many people and speak his name and talk about him," she said. "I miss him dearly. I miss his generosity of spirit. I miss his humor. I miss so many aspects of Matt and I don't get to introduce him to people like I used to or have him in my daily life as I used to."

The woman who signed the message on the shell "Aunt Fran" said the past few days have been emotional and educational all at once.

"What I take from this is that there is no such thing as an insignificant act," she said. "We never know how it's either going to come back to us or impact somebody else."

Crepeau said Riccobono asked her what she would like her to do with the shell. She encouraged her to throw it back into the water.

Riccobono said on Saturday her family went back to the beach at low tide when her father threw the shell back into the ocean.

"Maybe somewhere along the line somebody else will find it and another story will transpire," Sills said.

According to his obituary Horning was living in Hoboken at the time of his death. He  had graduated from Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in 1993. He had worked in data management for Marsh & McLennan since 1999 and was working on the 95th floor of the north tower at the time.

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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or

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