From the Rubble

It’s been five years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many New Jerseyans have been instrumental in rebuilding and restoring our lives. Here are just a few of their stories.

It’s been five years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many New Jerseyans have been instrumental in rebuilding and restoring our lives. Here are just a few of their stories.

Five years ago, as you approached Orchard Street from Middletown-Lincroft Road, you had no reason to look at the rusted remnants of Bandfield Moving and Storage that lay dormant next to a vacant lot. Today, you can’t take your eyes off the 37 marble monuments that sit in a manicured garden. Each monument is etched with a picture of one of the Middletown residents who fell victim to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. For many whose remains were never recovered, the old moving and storage property is the only gravesite that their families can visit.

In preparing for this year’s memorial ceremony, Mayor Tom Hall and other volunteers reached out to the families of 9/11 victims for opinions. Who should be invited? Who should speak? What music should be played? Hall didn’t receive as much response as he’d anticipated. “As we are finding out, a lot of families have moved from the area,” he says. “Some have even moved out of the state.”

The Widow

Kristen Breitweiser is a lean bolt of lightning, blond curls billowing behind her as she zips through the crowded Manhattan neighborhood that she and her six-year-old daughter, Caroline, now call home. Speaking as fast as she walks, she sneaks in an outing for their dog, Sam, before hitting a series of afternoon appointments.

Nobody expects to be a widow at 30. Five years and one month ago, she was a stay-at-home Middletown mom who skipped over the first five pages of the newspaper because international news meant little to her. But then her husband, Ron, died in the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Ever since, she’s lived with the constant hum of CNN and has spent hundreds of hours researching FBI reports and meeting with congressional leaders such as Senator John McCain. Yet her “frank vocabulary,” the way her smile consumes her whole face, and her sun-kissed complexion all reveal that part of her remains a Jersey Shore girl.

But Breitweiser’s casual conversation about babysitters and schools abruptly turns to policy. “For the most part you’ve got people who believe It just isn’t going to happen to me; bad things don’t happen to me. I’m going to dig a hole in the sand and poke my head in it and hope for the best. I was like that. I lived in the middle of the woods in a beautiful home, surrounded by nature. And you know what? Middle Eastern terrorists killed my husband. I should have paid better attention.” That is the crux of Breitweiser’s Wake Up Call: The Political Education of a 9/11 Widow, which hits bookshelves this month and chronicles her metamorphosis from sheltered suburban wife and mom to Washington browbeater.

“I was exhausted from realizing the life the widows and I led over the past four or five years,” the Manasquan native says. The widows, who, with Breitweiser, are also known as the Jersey Girls, are Patty Casazza of Colts Neck and Mindy Kleinberg and Lorie Van Auken of East Brunswick. Over the past five years, these four women have testified before Congress and the Joint Intelligence Committee and met with Henry Kissinger and then CIA director Porter Goss. Most famously, or infamously, depending on your point of view, the widows are credited with fighting for and then monitoring the work of the 9/11 Commission and with pressuring Condoleezza Rice into testifying.

While Breitweiser is proud of the hard work she and “the girls” have done, she doesn’t call it a success. “It is funny; people will say, ‘You guys have achieved so much,’ and we say, ‘Mmm, not so much,’” she says. “I think one thing we achieved is that we brought the topic of national security forward and made it part of the national debate. Before 9/11, people did not talk about national security. Do I think we did anything extraordinary? Truthfully, no. Truthfully, the 9/11 Commission Report does not answer all of our questions. In many ways they didn’t go as far as they needed to.”

Breitweiser points to the mismanaged Hurricane Katrina rescue-and-relief efforts as a sign that little has changed in the government’s preparedness for catastrophe. “We spent so many years—and blood, sweat, and tears—trying to see people in charge who know what they are doing,” Breitweiser says. “And it was so upsetting for us, because we were, like, ‘They have not learned a thing.’ We sat there watching people die, lose their homes.” Breitweiser recounts her time spent away from Caroline in pursuit of answers and action from the 9/11 Commission and is saddened that she and her friends couldn’t get an adequate response from anyone in power.

Breitweiser’s passionate agitation has yielded accolades, such as the 2005 Ron Ridenhour Award for her achievements in “truth telling” and Ms. magazine’s Woman of the Year in 2004. It’s also earned her a shocking rebuke from conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who slammed the Jersey Girls in her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism. Coulter writes:
These self-obsessed women seem genuinely unaware that 9/11 was an attack on our nation and acted as if the terrorist attack only happened to them. They believe the entire country was required to marinate in their exquisite personal agony. Apparently, denouncing Bush was part of the closure process.

Coulter then took to the Today show, telling Matt Lauer, “These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by ‘griefparazzis.’ I have never seen people enjoying their husbands’ death so much.”

The Jersey Girls dismiss all of Coulter’s claims, and Breitweiser says that her 2004 public endorsement of John Kerry for President may have been her last overtly political move. “Once you’ve seen the absolute ineptitude of Washington, and how little our elected officials look out for us, you can’t [walk away],” she says. “I wish I could just walk away and learn to play the piano or something fabulous like that, but, unfortunately, no one is looking out for us, Democrat or Republican.”

Breitweiser offers a muted reaction to the recently released film World Trade Center, perhaps because she was more outraged by her belief that last April’s sentencing of terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui was lost amid news coverage of previews of the film United 93. “All the press wants to talk about is the movie, and we were, like, ‘Do you not get this with Moussaoui? This is a real thing. We should be talking about prosecuting terrorists.’”

She and the other women still talk three times a day and still carpool to D.C. to keep rattling cages in the nation’s capital. “I think the reason that we have the friendship that we have and the reason we are so supportive to each other is why I am alive today and why we were able to achieve what we were able to achieve,” she says.

The Jersey Girls feel that, in many ways, society is moving on from the events that shook our nation’s sense of stability. “We did bring it to the national debate for a while. Do I think it is still there? No,” Breitweiser says. “I don’t think the national public is still caring about these issues. I think they are caring about Brad and Angelina’s child and Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn—are they dating? Are they not dating? But,” she says, “if you shop in a mall, have planes flying overhead, have loved ones that take a train, drive a large car, or heat a large house, you need to care about this.”

The Engineer

Every day, thousands of New Jersey commuters ride the PATH train directly into the footprints of the Twin Towers. While plans for the area’s redevelopment are being made and security has been increased, there is little visible evidence of progress. PATH trains pull into the same construction pit that’s been there since the temporary station opened on November 23, 2003.

New York’s skyline is in need of a new icon. Enter the Freedom Tower, the 1,776-foot-tall building proposed for the World Trade Center site that will provide at least 60 floors of commercial and retail space and will feature a 276-foot spire that’s intended to serve as a landlocked parallel to the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty, standing a quarter-mile away in New York Harbor.

The Freedom Tower was designed to be the world’s highest structural point, and it’s been a tall order to replace what stood before it. The World Trade Center site garners almost as much press coverage today as it did five years ago. But instead of reminding us of unspeakable tragedy, the news is a nagging reminder that egos, power plays, and politics conspire to sap hope from a region and a nation that wants to see construction begin on a building that can represent growth, renewal, and a place to remember the 2,819 people who died that September day, in those two tall towers.

So why is there still a hole in the ground?

On May 8, Time magazine summed up for a national audience what had made headlines in New York and New Jersey since plans to rebuild the site began: The delay was the result of real-estate and jurisdictional battles among a tenacious developer, Larry Silverstein; a billionaire businessman mayor, Michael Bloomberg; and an ambitious governor, George Pataki. The prospects for compromise among this axis of machismo were further complicated because the site in dispute is run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bistate juggernaut responsible for leasing out the 2.6 million square feet of office space in a building that will cost an estimated $2.1 billion to construct. The Port Authority plans to fill 60 percent of the Freedom Tower with government agencies. The deadline for the commitments from tenants is this month; as this story went to press, Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman reported that no commitments had been secured. To appreciate the enormity of the task ahead for the Port Authority, the new Silverstein-owned 7 World Trade Center has been rebuilt and is open for business, but so far only three tenants have moved in, and they occupy just 20 percent of its 1.7 million square feet of space.

In the years following the WTC’s destruction, decision-makers couldn’t agree on design, size, scope—or how to memorialize those who died in the attack. On February 23, 2003, after a wide search, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the nonprofit entity responsible for developing and maintaining the site, selected a plan by architect Daniel Libeskind, whose vision consisted of five new towers with office and retail space, restaurants, and residential units. The site will also have a permanent transportation hub, a museum, a performing-arts center, and open park space. Although the budget for it was recently reduced to $510 million, a memorial on the site will display the names of both the victims of 9/11 and the six people who died in 1993 when a bomb exploded in the WTC parking garage. In addition, two waterfalls will symbolize the Twin Towers.

Today, more than three years later, the Libeskind plan is anything but carved in stone. To begin with, not everyone likes the Freedom Tower design. It failed to gain the New York City Police Department’s approval and had to be revised last spring to increase security. New York real estate mogul and pop culture darling Donald Trump told CNN, “It is the worst piece of crap architecture I have ever seen in my life.”

Criticism notwithstanding, on April 27 construction on the Freedom Tower finally began, and it’s expected to be completed in 2011. The final plan for the memorial, however, is still up in the air, but the LMDC is confident that it will open in 2008. In July, the agency announced that its work was completed and it would disband in early 2007.

For those who watched the behemoth 1,350-foot Twin Towers turn to dust, the idea of replacing them with an even taller tower elicits a chill. But engineering has made significant advances since the towers were completed in 1972. Tod Rittenhouse, a structural engineer and a principal in Manhattan-based Weidlinger Associates Inc., is an anti-terrorism specialist and managing director of the company’s New York Structures Division. The Chatham resident helped rebuild the U.S. embassy in Moscow after spying devices were discovered to have been embedded in the structure and worked on other buildings around the world to make them as safe as possible under extraordinary circumstances. “We try to determine a realistic, credible threat, and design for that event,” he says. “It is impossible to prevent the damage and collapse of a building when attacked by a jetliner full of fuel.”

In the post-9/11 world, Rittenhouse’s challenge is to find ways to retrofit existing buildings while creating new buildings that protect the structures as well as their occupants. “In short, we want to separate occupied areas from unsecured positions of the building, such as lobbies, security desks, mailrooms, and loading docks. For these areas of the building, hardened walls and floors help protect people from exploding bombs,” he says. His firm also has developed a technology that allows glass to “fail predictably”—fracturing like a car windshield, which remains in its frame, instead of blowing jagged shards into a roomful of people. Engineers are also designing buildings to resist and redistribute the blast load from the impact of an explosion to help prevent them from collapsing.

In 2001, before the attack, Rittenhouse worked on the Pentagon, a project that used these protective technologies on “wedge one” of the building—the portion that was attacked. On 9/11, the parts of the renovated wedge that were just outside the impact zone remained standing and everyone inside survived. “You cannot protect a building against an airplane,” Rittenhouse says. “You wouldn’t have a building, you’d have a bunker. But you can create a protected environment that will reduce the danger to the occupants inside.”

Rittenhouse, who has been doing this work for more than twenty years, says that while demand for anti-terrorism specialists initially comes from the government, there is increasing demand from the private sector. “After the early attacks, in ’93 and in Oklahoma City, there was what I call a ‘half-life of concern,’ ” he says. “The concern never magically disappeared, it just lessened with each event-free day. But in the wake of 9/11, everyone went into high gear.”

The public and private sectors united to make security improvements, big and small. At 7 World Trade Center, upgrades in the fireproofing of the steel were made; the emergency stairs and exits were widened so that two people can comfortably exit while firefighters enter. Companies are also installing glow-in-the-dark emergency signs and exit arrows at low levels to help anyone forced to crawl to safety. According to Rittenhouse, these simple modifications increase security in the workplace. “The fear in the average person has dropped, but people no longer say, ‘It will happen somewhere else, not here,’ ” he adds.

But in our backyard, this lot on the tip of Manhattan has always represented innovation. And today it also serves as inspiration. Leslie Robertson, the former Princeton professor who served as the structural engineer of record for the Twin Towers, says that the technology developed for that project was groundbreaking as well. The glass towers were the first of their kind. The use of steel in their exoskeleton and their degree of flexibility in the wind at high altitude were unprecedented architectural features. Robertson also notes that the original towers project took ten years, start to finish, the anticipated timetable for the Freedom Tower.

The Commissioner

On August 10, 2001, Rutgers University Press signed a book deal with an author to write about the great paradox of the New Jersey governorship—that although the office carries the strongest gubernatorial powers in the country, the state’s residents often forget the leaders who have wielded them. And whom did the author choose as the personification of this phenomenon? Former governor Thomas Kean.

At the time of the deal, Kean had spent eleven years as dean of Drew University. While occasionally stumping in his home state for key Republican candidates, he turned down no fewer than five invitations to run for the U.S. Senate, and it seemed as if the governor had all but left public life.

But in the wake of the 2001 attacks, Kean became the face of the 9/11 Commission, having accepted the lead role on the panel after President George Bush’s first selection, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, resigned in November 2002, before the commission had held even a single hearing.

“As far as choosing Kean, what was on the President’s mind, we may never know,” says Alvin S. Felzenberg, author of the Rutgers Press book, Governor Tom Kean: From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9/11 Commission. The principal spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, Felzenberg, a Newark native, served as New Jersey’s assistant secretary of state during Kean’s tenure as governor.

Although Kean had served, Felzenberg says, as “Mr. Everything—Mr. National Security Adviser, Mr. Secretary of State, Mr. Diplomacy,” the author describes him as “a fellow from New Jersey who never worked in Washington, never read a classified document. The governor was a known leader in certain things like domestic policy, education, and welfare reform, and a great environmentalist, but never worked on foreign policy.”

Felzenberg speculates that Kean was chosen for the 9/11 Commission because of his reputation for fairness and bipartisanship and to ensure that the commission’s investigation would not become a political witch hunt, particularly of the Bush or Clinton administrations. Felzenberg also points to an affinity between Bush and Kean because of their similar gubernatorial careers; both won upset victories—Bush against Ann Richards in 1994, Kean against Jim Florio in 1981.

While Bush’s motivation for the appointment is not clear, Kean’s motivation for accepting is. “When the President of the United States calls you to do something,” Kean says, “you don’t say no.” Beyond a sense of duty, Kean has a very personal connection to the tragedy. Because he lost colleagues and neighbors, his students at Drew lost relatives, and the people he represented for so much of his career lost so much, he felt compelled to find answers. Despite criticism that the 9/11 Report did not find all the answers to why the terrorist attack occurred, Kean says that his goal was the report’s unanimous approval by the commission, and that much he achieved. He also says that the commission’s recommendations for cutting off funding to terrorists, sharing of information between the U.S. intelligence agencies, and  emergency preparedness—if implemented—will save lives.

New Jersey lost nearly 700 residents that day. “All of them were at one time constituents,” Felzenberg says. “You couldn’t travel down the Erie-Lackawanna line of NJ Transit without seeing a wreath or a picture of someone who died at every station. Kean also lost many close associates from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that day. So much about the World Trade Center tragedy was linked to his former life. He was a young legislator when the debate was going on about building the World Trade Center.”

Even though he was elected as the commission’s chairman and reported directly to the President, Kean had to answer to the public as well. “The American people have figured out spin,” says Felzenberg. “We didn’t have any spin. We announced the news and the goals that we hoped to achieve. That is why we had so many public hearings. The American people could watch us grow and see the issue we were grappling with.” Kean believes that for public opinion to matter it has to be an informed opinion, and he believes that the commission afforded that.

The commission’s charter expired two years ago, but Kean remains active in Washington, working with fellow commissioners on legislation concerning the coordination of emergency responders. Listening to rescue and recovery details at the commission hearings and watching some of the same emergency-response deficiencies occur following Hurricane Katrina inspired Kean to stay involved in homeland security. Kean continues to work with his fellow commissioners to ensure their recommendations become legislative realities.

“I became very close with the commissioners through all of this,” Kean says, “and we continue to choose to work together.” He also is applying his political savvy to speeding up nuclear disarmament. He considers nuclear terrorism the greatest threat to national security, and he wants Washington to move faster to disarm locations that have been identified as possessing nuclear weapons. Governor Tom Kean: From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9/11 Commission is no longer about life as a strong governor; it’s about the rise of a man from one of New Jersey’s political royal families to a position of national leadership. 9/11 brought our little corner of the world onto the global stage and, with it, Tom Kean.

But duty in D.C. and promoting a book aren’t enough to satisfy him right now. “I’ve had several offers from different colleges to teach a class,” Kean says, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if I am teaching one of them by next year. I miss the students.” After a few failed attempts at retirement, the 71-year-old now knows better than to try it again.

Tom Hall got the ceremonial logistics hammered out and he’s pleased that Middletown is recovering from the day five years ago when it lost 37 of its residents. On September 11, 2006, bagpipes will play, spirituals will be sung, a children’s group will play violins, and the faces of the victims etched in the memorial will be illuminated by candlelight. “I don’t think people here will ever find closure,” he says, “but people are moving on.”

The Artist

Sculptor Blaise Batko unveiled his third 9/11 memorial, in South River, on the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Just before it was unveiled, he took the parents of victim Christopher Moore Dincuss behind the granite-and-stainless-steel structure. Christopher’s mother, Joan, put her head in her hands when Batko peeled off a piece of tape on the back of the memorial to reveal c-more sandblasted into the piece; the private acknowledgement honored their son’s teenage ritual when, as captain of the South River High School football team, he’d shave his nickname into his close-cropped hair before a big game.

“It was one of my best moments doing what I do because I did something no one expected,” Batko says.

Batko may be an internationally recognized sculptor, but he’s just a local guy. The South River native and Hamilton resident has created thirteen memorials in New Jersey; five of them have been dedicated to 9/11 victims. Those in East Brunswick, Monroe, Middlesex Borough, and Old Bridge, like his South River work, have all been unveiled in 9/11 anniversary ceremonies.

A sculptor for more than 25 years, Batko works with the families of victims to design simple pieces packed with symbolism that, he says, capture the spirit of those honored and preserve the historical perspective of the moment they depict. “I am so impressed with the way they handle themselves with courage and dignity.”

His other memorials are dedicated to veterans and volunteers from all walks of life, people Batko is familiar with; his father is a WWII veteran and both of his parents were community activists.

“With the veterans’ memorials, it was different, because you’re far removed from it,” Batko says of his sculptures. “With the 9/11 works, you keep asking yourself, How could this happen?

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