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Beyond Numbers, 9/11 Panel Hears Families' Anguish

New York Times

There was the Port Authority police officer whose voice quivered when he recounted the sight of body after body dropping from the sky, missing him by feet.

There was the Army lieutenant colonel in the Pentagon who suffered burns on 60 percent of his body and told the sobbing, gasping audience how doctors used maggots to eat the dead tissue off his arms.

There was the father of a fallen firefighter, too, who did not get up to speak but simply sat in the audience and hoisted a picture of his son, Christian Regenhard, with the following words in angry boldface: "He would be safer in Iraq than he was at the WTC on 9/11!"

After a 19-month wait that they said was too long and too painful, the relatives of those who died in the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as some survivors, finally had their chance yesterday to testify as the first witnesses before a government panel investigating the attacks. And as the all-day hearing unfolded at the United States Custom House in Lower Manhattan, not far from where the World Trade Center once towered, it was hard for those on the 10-member commission not to sigh, or wince, or shed a tear.

But if Day 1 of what is expected to be a politically delicate 14-month process was heavy on the emotions, it offered a hint of the frustration and anger among some family members over the investigation's progress. As witness after witness addressed the commission, several gnawing questions were either articulated or implied: Who, if anyone, would ever be held responsible for failing to stop the attacks? Did the commission have the authority to truly make changes? And would a world focused on the latest war have the stomach, or the attention span, to listen again to the facts surrounding Sept. 11?

"I am convinced that this tragedy did not have to happen," said Stephen Push, a spokesman for Families of Sept. 11, which pressed for the establishment of the committee. "Too many politicians put re-election over national security. There were people who failed us on 9/11."

The panel, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, was created by Congress last year to conduct a broad investigation of the events of Sept. 11 and the intelligence and other government failures before them.

The chairman of the panel, which is split evenly between Democratic and Republican appointees, is Thomas H. Kean, the former New Jersey governor and a Republican, while the vice chairman is Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic House member from Indiana. Expected to assemble a staff of 50 to 60 to help with its investigation, the panel has said that it plans to draft a report by May 2004.

That the panel even had a meeting at all was the result, largely, of Mr. Push and other family members who put pressure on members of Congress. President Bush initially opposed the creation of such a panel. Then, Mr. Bush's first choice as chairman, Henry A. Kissinger, the former secretary of state, resigned after 9/11 family groups criticized his business ties to corporations and foreign governments that would come under scrutiny in the inquiry.

Still, despite the problems, the turnout yesterday of about 60 or so people was much smaller than organizers had anticipated. Gov. George E. Pataki and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg began by making statements, then yielded the floor to two groups of people who had either survived the attacks, or were related to people who had died. They were followed by a group of academics who talked about terrorism and counterterrorism.

Today, on the second of two days of testimony, the panel is scheduled to hear experts from the Department of Justice, a study group on homeland security and representatives from the New York City Fire and Police Departments on the subjects of security and law enforcement.

But for a day at least, the testimony was more intimate, as the families held court.

David Lim, a police officer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, could barely contain his emotions when talking about the loss of his K-9 partner, a yellow Labrador retriever named Sirius. Officer Lim also spoke about the frightening feeling of having the north tower collapse on top of him – and thinking that he was dead.

"You could feel the wind pushing," he said. "It was like an oncoming locomotive or an avalanche. It just kept coming and coming."

And Mindy Kleinberg mixed personal anguish over the death of her husband, Alan, a securities trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, as well as a detailed summary of her own research into the shortcomings of American intelligence. At one point, she pulled out a copy of some immigration documents that had been submitted by one of the hijackers, which were full of omissions or dubious answers, and questioned how he could have been allowed to stay.

"With no one being held accountable, how do we know this is still not happening?" she said. "As the threat of terrorism mounts here in the U.S., the need to address the failures of Sept. 11 is more important than ever." Afterward, some family members, while encouraged with the initial opportunity to have their say, expressed a queasiness over whether their words would stick, or whether political considerations would eventually erode their concerns. Because, after all, it was only the first day.

But if nothing else, the cumulative effect of all the witnesses prompted several commissioners yesterday to praise the speakers and to encourage all family members to stay involved in the process.

"Your stories are very compelling," said Fred F. Fielding, a former White House counsel who helped with Mr. Bush's transition team. "Please stay with us. Please keep giving us guidance."


© Copyright 2003 New York Times

Sally Regenhard,

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470

Monica Gabrielle,

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470