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The Memorial Warriors


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."

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