The Memorial Warriors

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?“)

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.

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.

But will it?

Christy Ferer, Bloomberg’s aide, may have been able to secure 1,000 free Star Wars tickets for the victims’ families, but she cannot guarantee that the man she works for will give them nine acres – or seven, or even five. (The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, as a point of contrast, occupies three.)

“The challenge for those of us who’ve lost someone,” says Ferer, “is to understand the number of other stakeholders involved in the revitalization of downtown – businesses, residents, commuters. So really, the question is, how far does our moral authority extend?”

Before that question is resolved, many family activists will doubtless continue to explore its limits. Advocacy has become their habit if not their lifework; death has a terrible way of suspending its mourners over the world that the non-grieving occupy. “I’m not very good at talking about things other than retrieving body parts and independent investigations,” confesses Lemack. “And it scares me. I no longer meet people very well.”

But Marian Fontana says she is trying, at least. Fontana is the introspective writer and performer who started the 9/11 Widows’ and Victims’ Families Association only days after her husband, Dave, jumped on a fire truck in Park Slope and never came home. For a year, Fontana has been trying to raise the city’s awareness about the particular culture of the Fire Department – how important it is for the boys to stay on a job until all are accounted for, how important it is for them to be paid enough not to need a second job. Both physically and personally, Fontana is a warm, hypnotic figure. For a full year, the media, and particularly the Times, have chronicled her ups and downs.

This past month, though, she disappeared. Fontana went to the wilderness of California for two weeks, then Martha’s Vineyard for another. “Now that I’ve had a chance to reflect,” she says, “I’d really like to try to get my old life back. The toll is monumental. The juggling act. Being the only single mom, pretty much, among the activists.

“I don’t know how healthy it is to make September 11 the only date on your calendar for the rest of your life,” she concludes. “It’s not fair to my son, or to Dave’s memory, really. I want to find the quiet place where I can start to grieve.”

The Memorial Warriors