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The Memorial Warriors


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.

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.

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