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Mom Turned Activist Shares In
$1 Million Union Square Awards
By Greg Barrett
November 30, 2002

Gannett News Service WASHINGTON — Sally Regenhard is the mother always seated in the front row with a large laminated photo of her dead son. She's the bold Irish Catholic positioned squarely in the face of officials at almost every Sept. 11-related news conference and congressional hearing from New York to Washington. She's the petite strawberry blond who pressed through security at a congressional hearing last month on Sept. 11 intelligence failures to squeeze off a single question for FBI Director Robert Mueller. "What did the FBI tell the NYPD members of the Joint Terrorist Task Force before 9-11 regarding ... warnings about the US being attacked?" she demanded."I don't know," she recalls Mueller answering, taken aback by her bark."I'd like for you to find out," she said before security moved between them.

They should never have killed Sally Regenhard's son — whoever "they" are. For 14 months, Regenhard has scattered blame like buckshot. Her accusations take aim at the "demonic, cave-dwelling barbarians" who piloted jets into the World Trade Center, the engineers who built the "house of cards" that fell on her firefighter son and the "idiotic bureaucrats" who approved its unconventional design.

On November 22, 2002, Regenhard, angry founder of the nonprofit Skyscraper Safety Campaign, will receive $48,500 as her cut of the fifth annual $1 million Union Square Awards sponsored by the Fund for the City of New York. It's the first money her nonprofit organization has received. Regenhard quit her job as a business executive soon after Sept. 11, 2001, to create the organization. She has spent $15,000 of her own money on travel between New York and Washington, phone calls and expenses. Regenhard said she's done her part "in keeping Amtrak afloat." She will be among 44 New Yorkers feted in a special ceremony in Manhattan. The honorees founded 20 grassroots initiatives benefiting everything from the arts to the homeless.

But don't expect Regenhard to be cheerful. No amount of money or recognition will mask the pain."I still have my boxing gloves on," she said dryly. The Skyscraper Safety Campaign, created by Regenhard and co-chaired by Sept. 11 widow Monica Gabrielle, spurred the National Construction Safety Team Act, signed into law Oct. 1 by President Bush. The law creates federal investigative teams with subpoena power to immediately impound the ruins of collapsed buildings. The law is designed to prevent a repeat of what happened after the Sept. 11 attacks, when most of the World Trade Center's twisted steel was sold for recycling before it could be examined for flaws.

As the Senate prepared to vote on the legislation on Sept. 17, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., cited the efforts of Regenhard and Gabrielle, whose husband of 28 years was an insurance broker in the World Trade Center."Without their dedication to this issue, this would not have gotten on the radar screen and we wouldn't have gotten the public support and the fast action in the Senate," Clinton said. "This legislation is so important because it will save lives. It will empower the National Institute of Standards and Technology ... to have the tools it needs to properly investigate major structural failures."

One week earlier, Regenhard and Gabrielle shadowed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., stuffing a letter into his hand as he left a Wall Street luncheon. The letter urged McCain to help push the National Construction Safety Team Act through the Senate committee where it was stuck. When McCain delivered a speech the next day to Sept. 11 victims' groups on Staten Island, Regenhard, as usual, sat in the front row with the photo of her handsome 28-year-old son, Christian, a former military man, like McCain. She raised her hand alongside those of the news media."Will you support the National Construction Safety Team Act?" she asked loudly."Yes," McCain answered. Three days later the bill moved out of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which McCain will head when the 108th Congress convenes in January."

That law is totally the result of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign," said Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at New York's John Jay College and a fire protection engineer who lobbied for the National Construction Safety Team Act."I may have provided the technical advice on it ... but Sally is the face of the cause. It certainly wasn't Glenn Corbett who got two congressional hearings and got this thing moving politically."But Regenhard isn't ready to relax. She has unanswered questions, such as the one she asked Mueller. She still charges forward with accusations and anger. "Psychology tells us that depression is hostility turned inward. I say, don't turn the hostility inward, turn it on the people it should be focused on," she said. "Get angry. Get determined. Show up at city council meetings. Show up in New York. Show up in Washington."

For all the bluster, she cries as easily today as she did the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, when she realized the distant view from her Bronx high-rise would forever hold the last memory of Christian. It was from that 30th-floor co-op that she and Christian had for decades enjoyed a view of the World Trade Center, its towers looking like tufts of grass across the Hudson River. Today, the Skyscraper Safety Campaign operates out of Christian's childhood bedroom, the one with the view. Most days, Regenhard wears an article of Christian's clothing— a fleece shirt or quilt jacket — just to feel close to her son. Speaking about him, she chokes on grief but pushes through until the quivering in her voice steadies."The families of 9-11 have been called the ‘walking wounded.' We are not the walking wounded, we are the walking dead," Regenhard said. "When I lost my son, I lost my heart. It was pulled out of my body."

Christian Regenhard, a writer, artist, mountain climber and bohemian world traveler, was studying fine arts at San Francisco State University in 2000 when his mother mailed him an ad about the New York fire department seeking recruits. He flew home, aced the written and physical tests and cut off his ponytail. He was a rookie when the five-alarm fire sounded on Sept. 11. Regenhard can't help but blame herself for sending him the ad."I bought into the aura that the New York City fire department was the best in the world ... that it was safe," she said, crying again. "I will regret it for as long as I live — which better be another 50 years because I've got a lot of butt to kick."

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© Copyright (c) 2002, Gannett News Service

Sally Regenhard,
Chairperson

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470
SallyR@SkyscraperSafety.org

Monica Gabrielle,
Co-Chairperson

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470
monicagabrielle@earthlink.net