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Skyscraper safety advocates hope to enlist commission studying Sept. 11 attacks

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON -- Ever since they lost loved ones in the destruction of the World Trade Center, Sally Regenhard and Monica Gabrielle have immersed themselves in the construction, emergency and evacuation procedures of tall buildings.

Their advocacy group, the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, is monitoring a federal study of building materials and fireproofing in the twin towers. It has endorsed a proposed ban on diesel fuel tanks in New York City buildings. It filed a lawsuit to ensure the next buildings at the trade center site - unlike the last ones - are subject to New York City building codes.

Regenhard said the group's call for an overhaul of high-rise safety has, until now, largely fallen on deaf ears. She and Gabrielle hope to enlist the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The commission is our last hope," said Regenhard, whose son Christian was among the 343 firefighters killed. "There's been no elected official, no governmental agency, who has dealt with the issues of what happened in those buildings and the colossal failures on every level."

Regenhard and Gabrielle are two of the scheduled witnesses Wednesday when the 10-member independent commission holds a public hearing at Drew University in New Jersey. The commission's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, is president of the university.

The hearing - the commission's fifth, and the first to take place in New Jersey - will focus on how government and private industry can cooperate on emergency planning and preparedness.

Other witnesses include Michael F. Byrne, who directs the Office of National Capital Region Coordination in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire safety at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who is a member of a recently created National Construction Safety Team Advisory Committee.

Kean said in a statement that World Trade Center tenants "varied widely in their levels of preparation for a catastrophic event. Many lacked evacuation plans that had been practiced, alternative communication systems, the ability to identify who was working that day, and fully executable business continuity plans."

The 10-member commission - formally the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States - has a deadline of May 27 to report its findings, conclusions and recommendations to the White House and Congress.

Its work over the past few months has been stalled by disputes over documents it requested from various government offices. The panel issued subpoenas to the Federal Aviation Administration and to the Pentagon. Last week, it reached a deal with the Bush administration to gain access, with restrictions, to highly secret intelligence reports that Bush received prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Gabrielle, a Connecticut resident whose husband Richard was killed in the attacks, said she is pleased the commission is taking time to focus on how companies can ready themselves to evacuate personnel in the case of a building emergency.

The managers and tenant companies of the World Trade Center, she said, should have overhauled their procedures after the first terrorist attack on the complex, a 1993 bombing, revealed flaws in evacuation procedures. She said the commission should use a future hearing to pose direct questions to officials from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the World Trade Center site.

"It's unconscionable that they did not provide the tenants and the occupants with specific guidelines on what to do to get out of them quickly and safely," said Gabrielle, of West Haven, Conn.

Regenhard said she hopes the commission endorses the idea of giving fire protection experts more of a say in the design and construction of large buildings.

And she plans to stress to the commission that new construction at the World Trade Center site, like the twin towers, will be exempt from city building codes because its owner is the bistate Port Authority.

Authority officials have said they intend to make sure the new buildings meet or exceed building and fire codes.

At the commission's first hearing, held in March, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended government oversight of the World Trade Center.

"In retrospect, there is little the city could have done on 9-11 to avoid the tremendous loss of life that occurred so quickly after the attacks," Bloomberg said in his testimony. "The failure of airport security doomed the 2,800 poor souls who are no longer with us."


© Copyright 2003, The Associated Press

Sally Regenhard,

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

Monica Gabrielle,

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