WTC families gain political clout

The statements began within weeks of 9/11, many freighted with emotion, and always, the gravitas that comes with great loss:

Family members of victims of the terror attacks say the White House …

The families strongly oppose ….

9/11 families support FBI whistle-blower …

9/11 families protest cultural plans …

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy forced them into a limelight that continues to this day, "the families" have become as much a political entity as people suffering loss, a vast human aggregate that has power even beyond their great numbers.

Their outspoken, even plangent, voices have succeeded in halting or revising some memorial plans, with the Drawing Center, once embedded in the Ground Zero blueprint, now casting about for a new home. "One down, one to go" is how many viewed it, hoping that those behind the International Freedom Center — which most vigorously oppose — would follow its lead.

As a group, though, the families are far from a one-voice, lockstep, monolithic bloc. And, as in any family, they have not been without their own squabbles — with each other as with the politicians they lobby.

"It’s ‘the families this’ or ‘the families that,’ and nothing could be further from the truth," said Nikki Stern, a 9/11 widow who had been executive director of one family group. "Nobody represents all the families."

And while groups purporting to represent 9/11 families have proliferated — there are more than 20 now — some prefer an independent voice: their own.

"I represent myself. I speak for myself," said Ingrid Jaffe of Weston, Fla., who lost her daughter, Michelle Goldstein. "I was never approached by any of these groups and I never went out of my way to join one."

Said Leanne Shay, who lost her brother Robert J. Shay Jr.: "There is no one group that speaks for me." When one takes a stand, "Sometimes I agree, sometimes not."

And one family member who wanted to be identified only as "wife of victim" — "I have no desire to see my name in print, ever again" — said this: "As far as telling you which group represents me, I have to say I have no idea. I receive so many e-mails with this one’s gripe and that one’s gripe. It got very confusing. I have come to a point where I wouldn’t want to claim to ‘agree’ with any group as a whole."

That said, most of several dozen 9/11 family members offered warm, even effusive praise for the overall efforts of 9/11 family advocates.

Though some were contacted individually, most had responded to an e-mail query sent out at Newsday’s request by Bill Doyle, who runs his own 9/11 support group that was singled out for praise by some.

Doyle, who lost his son, Joey, in the attack, said his 9/11 database includes members of 2,573 of the 2,973 victims.

The 9/11 groups, said Terry Strada, who lost her husband, "are always out there fighting the fights I cannot battle. I have been left with three children to raise, and I cannot possibly be half the places these people go nor do half the work they do."

Each one a bit different

One group lobbies for skyscraper safety. WTC Families for Proper Burial is suing to unearth tons of 9/11 remnants from the Fresh Kills landfill, pack it in dignified containers and bury it in a site more suited to ashen human remains.

Their first choice had been Ground Zero itself, "but we’ve reached a compromise point," said Diane Horning, who lost her son Matthew. The group now is interested in Governors Island.

Advocates for 9/11 Fallen Heroes opposes the random listing of names at the Ground Zero memorial. September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, whose name comes from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, "Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows," opposed the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions.

"We all slipped into our niches," said Charlie Wolf, who lost his wife and who started a no-longer-needed group called "Fix the Fund."

Kimberly Grieger, spokeswoman for the September 11th Families Association, is among those who have noticed that "there are many people who don’t belong to any group at all." Or some, she said, simply sign on to the membership rolls of a given group just to get its newsletter.

"And there’s so much overlap," Grieger said. "Pentagon and Shanksville families have their own groups"; so do families in California, Chicago, Massachusetts, western New York State, even Japan.

That some choose to remain unaffiliated is no surprise to Peter Gadiel, who lost his son James, 23. "There are people so traumatized still by the loss that they don’t want to be involved in anything. One told me that as of about two years ago he had not traveled more than 10 miles from his home."

Among those whose primary interest is news-driven is Linda Brewton, who lost her fiance: "My involvement is more along the lines of being able to obtain information about 9/11 and to know what is going on," she said. "It’s not so much about aligning politically or having an organization represent my views."

Doyle, 58, a retired Lehman Bros. trader who works out of his Staten Island home, closely monitors the groups and e-mails daily missives about such things as 9/11 anxiety workshops, memorial concerts and golf tournaments and how to obtain copies of FDNY tapes and oral histories. He also sends news accounts, such as a wire service story about the recent death of a Saudi al-Qaida leader.

After 9/11, Doyle quickly morphed into a kind of go-to guy, a self-taught "caseworker/facilitator," as he puts it, adding, "If the family does not know where to go, I do."

One recent morning his in-box held 238 e-mails, "so far," from family members who had "questions about the memorial, this one has a workers’ comp problem, here’s one looking for an attorney for surrogate’s court."

He uses two computers, three hard drives and recently calculated that he spent $121,000 of his own money on 9/11 outreach, declining offers of outside help because of the sensitive, hyperpersonal nature of much of his work.

Others, however, both look for and accept outside support; the American Red Cross alone has given five family groups $1.38 million in 9/11 recovery grants. That’s a little less than 3 percent of the $52 million in Red Cross recovery grants that have been given to 109 nonprofits that target 9/11 victims, said Jeffrey Hon, communications director for the Red Cross’s September 11 Recovery Program.

Families of September 11 received $155,000; the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund, $263,000; September 11 Families Association, two grants totaling $1 million; Voices of September 11, $213,000; and the WTC United Family Group, $149,000.

September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows has received a grant from, among others, the Ford Foundation. Doyle doesn’t think that competition for grant money is much of an issue because for many, "their main agenda is different."

Before he will advocate on behalf of 9/11 families, Doyle polls his database. If at least 1,500 agree on a given issue, such as the International Freedom Center at Ground Zero, he’ll speak out on their behalf.

To lobby against the International Freedom Center, 15 family groups banded together, "and between us we reach every family. Every family," Doyle said. "And when someone like the city, the state, says we’re not united and the families don’t agree, well that’s a fallacy. The majority rules. That’s democracy."

There have been splits, of course, with leaders of some groups publicly debating each other on the particulars of, say, immigration reform. The Take Back the Memorial site had to backtrack from a posted letter that said 14 family groups were unified in asking donors to boycott donations for the WTC memorial until the International Freedom Center, or IFC, was scuttled. Monica Iken, founder of September’s Mission, said she had agreed to no such thing.

One group that stands apart from the others is Families of September 11, of which Nikki Stern had been executive director.

>From day one, said Tom Rog

Filed in: Media Coverage

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