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Still Hard at Work, Wielding Questions, Science and Steel


From each of them, Sept. 11 stole something dear. The homemaker lost her husband. The scientist surrendered her sense of cool detachment. The ironworker lost touch for a time with home and family. But the disaster also handed them the task of their lives, and two years later, all three are still hard at work in the ruins of that one day.

Monica Gabrielle, a suburban homemaker who never gave much thought to politics, shuttles to Washington and Albany, relentlessly pressing to find out why he r husband had to die in the south tower. Why did the buildings collapse so fast? Why didn't more people escape?

They are the long-distance laborers, the marathoners, who by choice or necessity are still grappling with the disaster day after day, and who probably will for years to come.

Each is driven by a different force: the homemaker by a fierce grief and anger, the scientist by the challenge, the ironworker by his pride in belonging to a brotherhood at ground zero. But in the single-mindedness of their work, they have all felt similar moments of elation and exhaustion. At times they sense an isolation, as though they somehow joined a secret society, and only other members can understand how they feel, how they see. Those feelings are especially strong as the second anniversary of the attack approaches. Less raw in its emotions and less programmed in its rituals than the first, the milestone invites a question: How long will that day and its damage stay with us?

People like these three may offer an answer. While their engagement with the catastrophe is intense, their response is, in the end, just an extreme version of what most everyone feels: that it will linger a long, long while. "My hope is at some point you can make a little package of it, put it aside and look at it when you want, not have it slap you in the face and take control," Mrs. Gabrielle said. "That's going to take a long time." Pressing for Answers

Inside the little red ranch house in West Haven, Conn., where she and her husband lived for much of their 28 years of marriage, the dining room is cluttered with packages that Monica Gabrielle still doesn't know what to do with. They are filled with items sent in condolence: a hand-painted American-flag scarf from her husband's employer, a Special Olympics medal from the governor. Lapel pins, flags and paperweights — foolish gifts, she said, and laughed a sad, bitter laugh.

Mrs. Gabrielle, 51, has little patience for feel-good sentiments. What she craves is plain talk, particularly about the death of her husband, Richard, whom she met when she was just 17. A vice president of the Aon insurance brokerage house, he was pinned down by a marble wall on the 76th floor of the south tower and could not escape before the collapse.

"He was squashed like a cockroach," she says out of the side of her mouth.

She knows exactly how that sounds — how it makes other people wince — and she says it often. She wants them to face the hard reality of what happened to her husband and the 2,791 others listed as missing at ground zero. She wants them to become as angry as she is, to join her crusade to find out why so many died.

"A lot of people say: `What do you want to know? The terrorists took the planes and hit the building,' " she said, her raspy voice sharp with sarcasm. "Well, yeah, they started it, but the buildings collapsed in less than an hour. Unless there is a full investigation we're not going to know if people are to blame."

She and a Bronx woman named Sally Regenhard head the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, a group of victims' families that helped win passage of the Construction Safety Team Act. The bill, signed into law last October by President Bush, for the first time commits a single agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to investigate disasters involving buildings — including the World Trade Center attack — and gives it subpoena power. The families' group has sued public agencies and private companies for cash damages, hoping the suits will uncover information about everything from the construction of the trade center to airline security operations.

From the moment she rises each day, Mrs. Gabrielle tries not to stop moving. It's easier that way. Armed with sorrowful blue eyes and a biting black humor, she is front and center, whether at a Congressional hearing or a news conference. "Too many failures, too few answers," is one of her favorite sound bites. Before 9/11, she says, she did not even know who her town's mayor was. "All I cared about was, do we have money to go out and eat," she said.

And when her husband died, she lost her faith, the kind of faith people need to trust that drivers will stop at red lights, that elevators will not plummet, that skyscrapers will not crumble. For a time, she could not leave the house. Slowly, she pulled herself together and started asking questions.

She and Ms. Regenhard believe that there were deficiencies in the towers' construction and that the evacuation plan was inadequate. They want to know why emergency communication systems did not work properly that day.

"Somebody failed, and I want to know who it was, and I want to make sure they are out of their job, at least," said Mrs. Gabrielle, who sometimes sounds as if she wants revenge — and concedes that she does. "Three thousand people died, and someone needs to be held accountable."

Six months after the attack, she made a pact with herself never again to cry in public. But the turnaround has not been easy, or complete. She keeps a shrine to her husband on the dresser by her bed, and can hardly contemplate what to do with his clothing. Her daughter, Nicole, 25, leaves funny notes to cheer her up, and her mother checks in on her regularly. "You don't have to know everything, Ma," she said in one recent phone call. At the advice of friends and family, Mrs. Gabrielle is seeing a therapist. But she is annoyed by the well-meaning friends who urge her to get on with her life.

"Yeah," she said, "Let's see how you would get on if this happened to you. I am moving on, maybe not in a normal way, but this is moving on. I'm not where I was two years ago."


© Copyright 2003 ĘThe New York Times Company
Excerpt from New York Times September 11, 2003
MARATHONERS - Still Hard at Work, Wielding Questions, Science and Steel

Sally Regenhard,

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

Monica Gabrielle,

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