Skyscraper Safety Campaign - Must-Read Articles











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 challah."

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 feeling uncomfortable.

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 answers.

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 collapsed.

A year ago she'd never dreamed of speaking in front of large groups.

Now, Gabrielle is co-chairwoman of the campaign, along with Regenhard.

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 constructed.

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 trills.

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 , or (202) 737-5654.


© Copyright 2002 Register Washington Bureau

Sally Regenhard,

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

Monica Gabrielle,

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