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"The Memorial Warriors" (page 2 of 4)

Of course, the immensity of the stage on which this disaster played out has doubtless changed the terms of the discussion. Because the collapse of the World Trade Center was a singular media event -- essentially, the real-time death of 2,800 people on our screens -- the families of the World Trade Center victims must have a very different sense of their rights than they would have had in a world without 24-hour-news networks.

And the activists have an eager national media at their disposal to make their case. Last fall, for instance, Anthony Gardner mentioned on a talk show that Hillary Clinton's office hadn't returned the phone calls of his organization, the WTC United Family Group; the senator's office called the next day. (Gardner later took a two-month media vacation: "I didn't want to get to the point where people saw me on television and thought, Oh, God -- this Gardner kid again? What is he bitching about now?")

Not all the family leaders are so self-aware. Some are opportunistic, while others are giving; some are moving, others horribly shrill. But all of them are driven by a sorrow so deep it has generated an awesome resolve, one that has changed the terms of public dialogue and even public policy in this city. Their tortured zeal may accomplish even more over the months and years to come, except, of course, the one thing that matters most -- and that, as any of them will bitterly, brokenheartedly tell you, once the cameras are off, is to raise the dead.

Monica Iken is riding down to ground zero in a black sedan provided by Japanese television. A film crew has been following her around all week, and for the next few minutes, they'll be following me, too, following her. This is what it means to be Monica Iken, at least nowadays. She has testified before the City Council, visited the White House, and met with Pataki, Bloomberg, Giuliani, and Hillary. A publicist in the suburbs of Washington handles all her press calls. There was a day earlier this summer when he got more than 70 in a single morning. "I don't need to go to the pit this September 11, when I'll have to share it," Iken tells me, referring to the blade-shaped basin that is now ground zero. "I can't stand sharing it." Monica Iken is the 32-year-old founder of September's Mission, a nonprofit dedicated to the development of a memorial park on the World Trade Center site. How she became a media icon is not a source of great mystery. She is the human equivalent of a long-stem rose -- five foot ten (and taller in heels), a willowy size 4, partial to outfits that show off her figure, and frankly stunning. On September 12, when she wandered around ground zero with a picture of her husband, Michael, a bond trader at Euro Brokers, the media swarmed her like ants on a sugar bowl. Because she hadn't planned to work that academic year (she was going to substitute-teach instead and try to get pregnant), she has had plenty of time to nurture her organization, which she runs on her own money and a few contributions from private donors.

"If they do the memorial right, there's going to be a separate place for families," she continues as the car glides down Broadway. "We're not going to circle the blocks, waiting on lines. If I want to go be with Michael, I want to know I can do that without having to push through people. I don't want to feel like I ever have to worry about that."

We reach ground zero and climb out of the sedan. It is mobbed, as usual. Amid the crush of tourists, Iken spots Jack Lynch, vice-president of the 9/11 Widows' and Victims' Families Association. She gives him a hug. Then William Rodriguez, founder of the Hispanic Victims Group, sweeps by, a camera crew trailing behind him too.

"Willy!" Iken gives him a kiss. "Do you have a new cell number? I called you last night and you didn't call me back."

"I get so many calls . . . "

"I know! My cell-phone bill was $1,000 last month! Argh!" She makes a gesture of mock helplessness. Then: "You're coming to that meeting later, right?"

"Ah! No!" Rodriguez points to the litter of cameras behind him. "I have a crew following me from Telemundo International. You gotta cover for me, mami!"

At one point, Iken told the news program 48 Hours that she and other family members would form a human chain, if necessary, to assure that all sixteen acres of ground zero were consecrated. Today, she realizes she isn't apt to get her wish. The coalition, of which her organization is a part, is instead asking for nine acres. It has also asked that the Port Authority move a transportation hub slated for construction directly beneath the North Tower, because dozens of bodies were found there. ("Ever been to the catacombs in Rome?" asks Iken. "All the trains zigzag around 'em.")

Last week, the Port Authority said it was indeed seriously considering moving the hub -- a major victory for Iken. Our mayor, however, has uttered nary a word about revising his "less is more" policy concerning the memorial. For Iken, these are fighting words. She feels adamant about the sanctity of the site. "It is a cemetery," she recently told me at a lunch at the Mercer Kitchen. "Without tombstones. No matter how clean it is, you still have the molecules of people there. Michael's essence of being is still there. In order for us to connect with our loved ones, we need to be where they were."

Now we are at the pit, and I ask if she can connect amid the crush of tourists. She shakes her head. "I don't like the gawking," she says, squeezing her way through the crowd. "I don't know if people fully understand how difficult that is."

We push our way to an empty spot at the chain-link fence and stare into the open bathtub, now awhirl with yellow trucks and vans. She stares for a while, then turns abruptly on her heel. A year after Michael died, Iken still has no remains. "I don't like the energy here," she says, and walks away. "I just feel like the souls aren't resting in peace."

"The fact is, the only people who chose to die there were the friggin' terrorists."

This is Tom Rogér, the graying, mild-mannered vice-president of Families of September 11. His organization is not a part of the coalition.

"So to say 'It's sacred ground,' " he continues, "and 'This is the place where we're going to pay our respects to our loved ones' . . . People really ought to think about that. I mean, my daughter -- her graveyard, in our minds, is not going to be there." Jean Rogér was a 24-year-old flight attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston. "Symbolically, we've already committed her remains" -- the urn of ash he received from Giuliani -- "to a place on Lake Erie, where my family has a home. As far as we're concerned, that's where she is."

In Washington, Rogér's organization -- whose board features a lobbyist and four lawyers -- is pushing for a bipartisan commission to investigate the events leading up to September 11, just like the one established to probe Pearl Harbor. Here, it is waging an aggressive campaign with the television media to issue warnings before showing footage of the towers burning.

I mention to Rogér that some people seem to connect with ground zero. "Yeah, I hear a lot of this," he says. "And the fact is, the remains of 1,500 people have not been recovered, so in some people's minds, they're still there. And I mean, they're not."

He talks about a member of his own group whose husband's remains were collected from eighteen places around the site. "She said at our meeting last night that they can build anywhere but the footprints," he says. "It was very poignant, but she was almost arguing against herself, because she was making the point that the remains of her husband were scattered everywhere."

When the coalition came together, Families of September 11 decided to join. Then the coalition squared off with Bloomberg about the date of the closing ceremony at ground zero. "I certainly respect the coalition," says Rogér, a project executive at a building company, "but I think we have to try to be very, very strategic about what issues we take on." His group dropped out.

         
   
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