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The Memorial Warriors

For many spouses and parents of 9/11 victims, mourning meant getting involved. Now their moral authority and media sophistication -- not to speak of their anger -- have made them crucial players in the future of downtown.

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When Nicole Petrocelli tries to explain why she became an activist, she inevitably tells the story of how her husband, Mark, was found. It begins on the afternoon of September 25, just one hour before his funeral Mass. Petrocelli was stepping out of the shower when two men rang the doorbell of her Staten Island home. She grabbed a towel, wandered into the hallway, and got close enough to her balcony to make out the bottoms of two pairs of gray flannel pants.

The detectives had come to tell her that Mark's body had been identified. The problem was, that was all they knew. "They just gave us a phone number," she says. "When we called, we couldn't get any information." Petrocelli decided to go through with the Mass, rather than reschedule it. As it turns out, she made the right choice.

What the rescue workers had identified of 28-year-old Mark Petrocelli -- newlywed, newly minted commodities broker, and lifelong Staten Islander -- was not, in fact, his body. It was six ounces of jawbone and some teeth.

In mid-October, Petrocelli got another phone call from the medical examiner's office, informing her that the crew had recovered Mark's torso. (When she showed up, the description seemed cruelly optimistic: What they'd actually isolated were his ribs, his right hand, and part of his right thigh.) In November, she got a third phone call, saying the crew had tweezed more muscle and skeletal tissue from the pile. In March, after months of nightmares about what this piecemeal recovery might imply, Petrocelli made an appointment with the medical examiner's office. "I saw the file he was reading," she says. "I was reading it upside down. And I noticed an asterisk."

Strong odor of jet fuel.

"He said Mark was probably killed by the initial blast of the plane," she explains. "He was thrown so far out of the building he was killed instantly." Petrocelli thanked him and left. The very next day, the phone rang. The medical examiner himself was on the line. His crew had identified more muscle, plus Mark's right foot, plus -- to her amazement -- his heart. "I could hardly breathe," she says. "But I suppose, as time went on, I thought of it as You have my heart; I love you. And that's how I think of it now."

Petrocelli, 28, finally buried her husband on August 10, and she resumed her job as a resource-room teacher last week. "A lot of people might not understand why I felt the need to spend the year volunteering for one of the family groups -- or to do this interview," she says. "But if I didn't, and if I don't, people are never going to know we went through this. They'll never know that Mark's jaw was found in one spot and his heart in another and his ribs in a third place and his foot, his right foot, in a fourth. They need to know the sacredness of that place.

"Because that site," she concludes, her voice starting to tremble, "is eventually going to be redeveloped. And they need to know that putting office space on that spot is just . . . morally . . . wrong."

Whenever anyone dies, politics follows. It's part of the emotional confusion of grief. In an attempt to regain control, in an attempt to vent undifferentiated rage, survivors almost always fight -- over money, over perceived slights, over coffins and plots and how best to honor the dead.

The families of the World Trade Center attacks are no different. But because their loved ones were slain in a televised act of war, their private politics has become our local and national politics, and their pain a part of our public debate. The calamity of September 11 generated a brand-new bloc of activists in this city, a bloc as angry and distraught as our elected officials have ever seen. And one year later, these family members are fiercer, savvier, and better organized than they ever were before and show absolutely no hint of going away.

"I think the reality is hitting about how much political power and clout these families have," says Robin Forst, the deputy chief of staff to Alan Gerson, the City Council member who represents the Trade Center site. "It's impressive, really, how far they've come to where they now are, which is a pretty formidable alliance."

This formidable alliance, officially known as the Coalition of 9/11 Families, is made up of seven groups, each of which started independently after September 11. Many people don't realize how critical these organizations were in the direct aftermath of the attack -- creating e-mail lists, working as ad hoc liaisons to the medical examiner's office and the charities, guiding elected officials when no one in public life could possibly intuit all the needs of the bereaved.

In March, however, they decided to bond together as a unit, both to focus their energies on the memorial and to form a more potent petitioning force. To gauge their influence, one need look no further than the first round of plans for ground zero: Four out of six left the tower footprints free of commercial development, which the families had been arguing for all along.

The trouble is that these one-acre footprints, at least for the coalition, are not nearly enough -- which puts them at odds with the mayor of this city. Though Mayor Bloomberg has certainly tried to be sensitive to the victims' families during his tenure -- building them viewing platforms, for example, and giving them their own family room at One Liberty Plaza -- he stubbornly, and at times crankily, draws the line at their attempts to interfere with redevelopment. Recently, in a speech before the Chamber of Commerce, he declared: "People who live in Battery Park City don't want to live in a memorial."

But if Bloomberg sometimes sounds like the political neophyte that he is, most on the other side have even less experience. Before September 11, few if any coalition leaders had run large organizations; several, in fact, were not employed at all. As a consequence, they haven't always selected their battles with surgical precision. This May, for example, several leaders very publicly complained to Rudy Giuliani that his successor wouldn't change the date of the closing ceremony at ground zero from a Thursday to a weekend. It proved tantamount to a declaration of war. Two days later, Christy Ferer, Bloomberg's liaison to the victims, declared in a Times op-ed piece: "I find my e-mail box holds mostly moderate messages from a silent majority who do not belong to organized groups. Many people do not ever want to see Ground Zero, much less participate in any of the ceremonial milestones." ("I question what people she represents," Bill Doyle, a leader of Give Your Voice, retorted in the Daily News a few weeks later.)

Ferer -- who lost her husband, Port Authority director Neil Levin, on September 11 -- points out that she has found family members free hotel rooms, free transport, and money for projects. Recently, she secured $400,000 to house the unidentified victims' remains. "But sometimes," she says, "you just gotta sit back and think, You can't do enough for these people. They're grieving."

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?")


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