In Bereavement, Pioneers on a Lonely Trail
The New York Times The New York Times New York Region September 8, 2002  

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In Bereavement, Pioneers on a Lonely Trail

(Page 4 of 4)

"I'd like to be the mouse that roared," said Mrs. Horning, who has been pushing New York City to properly bury the ashes that accumulated at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island during the cleanup of ground zero. "But I just don't see it happening."

And some fear that pouring so much energy into the organizations and politics is postponing the crash — avoiding grief by keeping one's Palm Pilot full.


"They lost the person they loved, then turned around and got so consumed by everything," said Jill Anderson, who lost her husband, Kermit. "But when that's gone, I don't know what you do."

Other women say, let that day come. They're not worried at all.

"The greatest balm to your grief and your wounds is getting justice," said Sally Regenhard, who lost her son, Christian, and founded the Skyscraper Safety Campaign. "When we get justice, it will change the world, but it's probably going to take the rest of my lifetime."

A Sudden Push
Toward Politics

A year ago, Mary Ellen Salamone, who lost her husband, John, did not even know the names of her two senators from New Jersey. In the wonderfully ordinary whirl of raising three young children, she said, politics was just background noise. But only seven months after the attacks, she found herself in Washington in front of a bristling bank of microphones, testifying before Congress about the need for improved border security.

"Everything I didn't want to know about politics, I was forced to learn," she said.

For many family members, grief has become a steppingstone to a deeper personal journey. Some people who never worked outside the home have taken jobs, others have quit the jobs they had, either to care for children or because their former careers suddenly had no meaning. Some became more radical in their politics, and some were filled with new faith and hope. Some moved away and some moved back to the places where they were born and raised.

Peter Gadiel, who lost his son James, struggled last fall to understand the nation's immigration policies that had allowed terrorists into the country. And what he learned changed him. A lifelong Republican, he is now working to defeat his United States representative in Connecticut, Nancy L. Johnson, a Republican who Mr. Gadiel thinks has a bad voting record on immigration law.

Other people say one change can sometimes conflict with another.

Patricia Reilly, who lost her sister Lorraine Lee, has become deeply cynical about politics over her months of work on the issue of a Manhattan memorial. Again and again, she saw economic and political leaders trying to isolate the families and minimize their voices by suggesting that they were overwrought and traumatized — people to be pitied but not listened to.

But that feeling was countered, she said, by the realization that the family members now have a responsibility to go forward — questioning and challenging authority — because not doing so would amount to a betrayal of the nation.

"If we go back to complacency, then my family is going be at risk again, and so are they," Ms. Reilly said, referring to the rest of the country.

Ted Suarez said he sometimes felt like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. "St. Paul was knocked off his horse — he had a vision that changed his life," Mr. Suarez said. "This event comes close to that for me."

Mr. Suarez's son David wrote a poem a few months before his death. The poem lives on. It has become a Suarez family mission to have it translated and published around the world — 90 languages so far, and counting.

David Suarez wrote about boundaries — confronting them, transcending them, and in the end being freed from them. His father said that becoming the vehicle for that message might be the one positive thing, at least in this family, to come from the attacks.

The poem's final stanza reads:

For just a moment

you abandon your incarcerated body

wholly relinquishing your ties

to human nature

and for only an instant,

you become part of God

you are free.

Coming of Age
The Ways and Means
Of a Group Effort

A businessman wanted the board of directors at the group, Families of Sept. 11, to endorse his product, a set of gift cards with a 9/11 theme that would be advertised in Playboy magazine. That got a quick "no thanks."

Whether to join a lawsuit against institutions and financiers in Saudi Arabia was a tougher call. One faction on the board argued that the group, which has 900 members and a broad agenda of support for victims' relatives, should join the suit. Important information might emerge about the international system of terror, they said.

The other side worried how it might look, and whether the public would think the families were just after Saudi money — it was the "greedy family" specter all over again. The cautious side carried the day and the board voted to take no active role, but only provide information to members. The suit was filed last month.

"We have to be careful who we jump in bed with," said Thomas Rogιr, a board member who lost his daughter, Jean.

The relatives of Sept. 11 are certainly not the first examples of advocacy rising from the ashes of grief. Survivors from Oklahoma City, the Lockerbie flight and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 all organized for support or protest.

But there are huge differences this time. None of those other events, as wrenching as they were, triggered a revamping of the nation's airline security, immigration and law enforcement policies — not to mention a war halfway around the world. Over the last year, the family groups of Sept. 11 have become consultants, witnesses and participants, and some family leaders think they can go much further if they are careful and thoughtful and smart.

And so they worry. They worry about appearing overly emotional or strident. They worry about being pigeonholed — whether it appears that pushing for an independent investigation into the attacks, in opposition to the Bush administration, puts them in the pocket of the Democrats. And they worry how to achieve political ends without becoming, well, too political.

"We're talking about a political group whose power comes from the fact that they're not political," said Francesca Polletta, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University. "How do you play in the political arena without becoming a traditional political entity? It's a tough situation."

But the families are learning.

When New York City was about to release the first six proposed plans for rebuilding Lower Manhattan in June, for example, the groups were given a first look before the public or the news media. The groups' leaders, according to people who were there, hated every idea, and some firebrands wanted to hold a news conference then and there to voice their strong objections. But after gathering in a meeting room near City Hall, they resolved to hold their fire and reserve comment.

The plans were then given to the public, and the reaction was also almost universally negative. The families got what they wanted — the proposals quickly went down in flames — but they also avoided looking out of step. When the families said no, they did so as part of a chorus.

"The way they handled the six site plans was brilliant," an aide to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said. "They've got some very smart people on those committees who were never involved in politics, but who have learned the process very, very quickly."

Anthony Gardner, who lost his brother Harvey, and founded one of the largest Sept. 11 organizations, the WTC United Family Group, said he believed that how the families were perceived by the public was important. But in going forward from here, he said, it is just as important that they actually find a way to be back in step with the mainstream, because it is in the center, he said, not the borderlands or the extremes, where real change happens in America.

"We're all in this together," he said.

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Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
A year after Sept. 11, the victims' families, like Tom and JoAnn Meehan, say that what defines them most is their sense of separation from other Americans.


An Accounting of the Victims

Interactive Feature: An Accounting of the Victims


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