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"The Memorial Warriors" (page 3 of 4)

Nikki Stern, who started an information network for New Jersey families and now serves as victim liaison to Governor Jim McGreevy, also isn't a member of the coalition.

"What do I think of the footprints?" Stern is also a publicist for an architectural firm, so she's given this question some thought. "Honestly, I still don't know. I don't know if I care. I mean, I can say without flinching that part of my husband may have gone home on the jacket of a survivor that day. But I understand the connection that other family members have with the site. And I do care about the other people's feelings."

She takes a sip of her club soda. We're sitting at a restaurant in Grand Central, watching commuters race by. "I'm not a religious person," she says. "But I am a spiritual person. And in retrospect, I think it would have been helpful to have a frank discussion about sacred ground that included some clergy. It'd have gone a long way."

I ask if she has any remains of her husband, James E. Potorti, a big, handsome vice-president at Marsh & McLennan.

"I have . . . I guess it's a remain. I have an identification." She laughs awkwardly and makes a tiny cylinder out of her hand, which she places in front her eye, as if she were peering out of a telescope. "It's about this big. A shard of bone from his right arm. That would be enough for some people. Not me, though. I'm giving it to his parents. It'll never be enough for me."

She closes her thumb and her forefinger, and makes, without noticing, a small fist.

"They say the buildings held up remarkably well," Sally Regenhard is saying to a television crew -- the first of about six or so she'll be speaking to this morning. Regenhard has just finished testifying before the mayor's Building Code Review Task Force. She is bleached-blonde, smartly dressed, generously rouged for the cameras. "You ask the loved ones of the 3,000 people who were crushed like cockroaches whether they think the buildings held up remarkably well. That is asinine, okay?"

At almost every press conference, in almost every interview, Regenhard will say that what killed her son, a probationary firefighter, was not our policy in the Mideast, a lapse in U.S. intelligence, a failure in airline security, the force of two jetliners, the depravity of Osama bin Laden, or the zealotry of nineteen homicidal maniacs. She will say the towers themselves murdered her son. The towers and the forces that built them.

"It has been proven scientifically that the World Trade Center did not collapse because two planes hit it," she continues, pointing her finger at the camera. "It collapsed because of insufficient spray-on fireproofing, which the Port Authority has known about for two decades."

And at almost every press conference, in almost every interview, Regenhard cries. Today is no exception.

"Christian was the most wonderful person that you could ever meet," she says as the tears start to run. She clasps his picture. He is very handsome. "He was a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science. He also got into Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech. He had a 146 IQ. He was an artist. He was a writer. He was a babe magnet . . . " She will repeat these same words several more times before the morning is through.

Regenhard used to be a nice lady from the Bronx who worked in the nursing-home business. Now she is the head of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, an organization dedicated to improving fire safety and reforming city building codes, and she is fearless about speaking her mind. She has spoken to fire departments in Indiana and California. She has interrupted Hillary Clinton in the middle of a press conference. Back in both March and May, she led delegations of parents and widows to Washington, D.C., in order to watch one of her advisers testify at hearings before the House Science Committee. "I was amazed, really," says David Goldston, the committee chief of staff, who still deals with Regenhard today. "Amazed at the number of people she'd assembled" -- her advisory panel includes prominent professors, retired fire chiefs, and civil-liberties lawyer Norm Siegel -- "amazed at her ability to organize, amazed at her ability to handle the press."

He admits that dealing with anyone who's still so raw and emotional can be trying. "There's something a bit frightening and distancing about it," he says. "But I think part of what happens is, the line between public and private starts to vanish."

After the hearing, I call Regenhard in her Co-op City apartment to find out how she became so interested in spray-on fireproofing, sprinkler systems, and the hazards of truss construction. "Because as I watched those cursed buildings collapse," she answers, "I knew this should never have happened. This is not a Third World country. Yet those towers collapsed like buildings in a Third World country, like a house of cards."

She adds that she hasn't taken a vacation day all year and that she no longer socializes with her old friends -- just victims' families. "I know I sound obsessive," she says. "I was never like this." She starts to cry again. "I don't know why God did this to us. It has to be for a higher purpose. If we could just reform those building codes . . . "

She collects herself.

"Once in a while, I'd see these crazy people on Oprah crying and screaming, and I'd think, How can they do this? But I can do this. I'm opening my whole life, from A to Z. This is now my life's work. This is not just about New York. This is about the whole country. This is about building codes that don't exist, and firefighters who have to be taught to be activists for their own benefit."

She pauses. It is the first and only time I've heard Sally Regenhard pause. "And this keeps me alive." She is speaking from her son's old room, now the office of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, which stares out at where the towers once were. "Because when this happened to us, we lost, honestly, our will to live."

"Oh, i thought about suicide."

Nikki Stern speaking again.

"Thought about it seriously when I visited my cousins in California at Christmastime. We were out at Laguna Beach. Jim had this watch collection, so I'd been throwing watches in all these bodies of water we used to visit. This time, I threw the watch into the ocean, and my cousin Judy said, 'Okay! Come back!' I didn't turn around. I was wondering how hard it would have been."

She struggles to elaborate. "Without any kids," she finally says, "I was totally wrapped up in my relationship. And when I lost that, I had no bottom. No basis to get up in the morning. I knew I was going to do something terrible if I didn't define a reason."

So for Stern, 52, activism became her reason. But there are many reasons that certain family members became activists after September 11, and the really honest ones will tell you that honoring their loved ones was only a part of it.

For many leaders, it had to do with the ghastly, incomparable way their relatives died. Death fantasies play an active, pernicious part of their psychic lives, rattling them awake at night and sending their cars skidding off the road. It's a part of the psychic lives of those who aren't activists, too, of course, but one of the advantages to being at the center of a large organization is the ability to speak to so many others, so that one might be able to piece together the elusive narrative: Did your husband see mine? Did he look like he was in pain?

"I'll never forget my reaction when I found out my mother was on Flight 11: I need to know what happened," says Carie Lemack, president of Families of September 11. "Was she told she was going to be murdered? There were reports of pepper spray -- was she maced? One of the flight attendants said she'd seen a bomb -- was there? Eleven months later, we still don't know."

 

 

         
   
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