West Haven woman on a mission to find answers
By Lolita C. Baldor
September 04, 2002
NEW YORK Monica Gabrielle slid into a chair at Chelsea Square
restaurant and ordered "the usual French toast with regular bread, not
On the seat next to her, papers protruded from her bag,
along with a purple-covered notebook with color-coded tabs that helps her
organize her time in these post-Sept. 11 days.
In the past year, since her husband, Rich, 50, was last
seen in the 78th floor Sky Lobby of Tower Two at the World Trade Center,
Gabrielle has found herself spending more and more time in the Chelsea
neighborhood apartment he rented for them five years ago.
These days, she admits, she finds it more comforting to get
lost in Manhattan's mass of humanity than to be at home so very alone
at their house in West Haven.
There, in her neat residential neighborhood, "You're alone
and you know you're alone it's always in the forefront," she said. "Here
(in Manhattan) there are people alone everywhere."
Here just a few subway stops from the massive grave site
that has yet to yield proof of her husband's death she can sit in a
place like Chelsea Square, order her familiar lunch, and eat alone without
Or, she added, with a sweep of her hand toward the bustling
city block, you can order take-out and never have to leave your apartment.
That's been a relief in recent months, as her apartment has
slowly morphed into a small office, crowded with a new computer, printer
and fax machine all vital tools of her new life.
The Tuesday that airliners slammed into the Twin Towers was
her last day of work in the Manhattan sales office of Outdoor Life
Network. Since then, as one friend observed, she's gone from "innocence to
outrage." And she's been driven. Driven to find answers.
"It wasn't a conscious decision, it was that I just
couldn't go back to work," said Gabrielle, 50, as she settled in at the
23rd Street diner. "The business I was in just wasn't important anymore."
Instead, she first found herself sitting in her NYC
apartment in front of the television watching the buildings fall over and
over again, searching for clues.
A glimpse. A familiar face. A piece of clothing identifying
her husband of 28 years.
To date, she has nothing.
She is one of hundreds of family members still waiting to
get what they call a "recovery call." A friend got one the other day,
finally hearing that forensic experts had matched a lost family member's
DNA to some remains found at Ground Zero.
Gabrielle hasn't given up on the chance that she'll get
that kind of closure one day. But meanwhile, she is also searching for
In the weeks after the attacks, when she found she couldn't
go to any more funerals, couldn't listen to any more people crying, she
slowly started to network with others, trading bits of information.
A woman who had worked with Gabrielle's husband began
passing things on, and gradually she found others who were asking the same
questions. What went wrong? Why were people still in the buildings? Were
evacuation procedures improper? Why did the towers fall? She became
friends with Sally Regenhard, whose son Christian, 28, was a probationary
New York firefighter with Engine Company 279 and is still missing. They
banded with others, and suddenly the Skyscraper Safety Campaign was born.
Gradually their questions became more insistent calls and
then demands for an investigation into why the towering steel structures
A year ago she'd never dreamed of speaking in front of
Now, Gabrielle is co-chairwoman of the campaign, along with
She finds herself at meetings with the Commerce
Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology talking about
building codes and the need for an investigation into how the towers were
She's told her story to members of Congress in private
sessions and to crowds of hundreds at public demonstrations.
"What caused the structural failure?" she asks. "Was it the
fireproofing? The construction? How can you prevent it from happening
again if you don't know what to fix?"
She knows that other families are dealing with their grief
in starkly different and more private ways. But right now, this is getting
her through each day.
"Who would believe it?" she asked, still a bit amazed at
her new role. "But when you're feeling something inside and it comes from
the heart, you do it. I have a lot to say."
Dangling around her neck is a gift from her sister a half
of a broken heart inscribed with Rich's name. Her daughter Nicole wears
the other half.
And around Gabrielle's wrist is a broad silver bangle
patterned after the MIA bracelets that is also inscribed with his name
and the date.
"Not every day is a good day," said Gabrielle, who vowed on
the six-month anniversary that she wouldn't cry in public anymore. "Some
days you want to kick something. But I decided we had to stop
concentrating on our misery and make some changes. It's working for me."
Her French toast finished, she's starting to pack up so she
can get to a conference call and then get ready for more meetings. Phone
numbers and business cards spill out of her notebook, and her cell phone
So what would Rich think of these changes?
A brief smile lights up her face, and Gabrielle nods. "He'd
probably be saying, 'Go girl!' "
Lolita C. Baldor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ,
or (202) 737-5654.
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