Fighting for Safer Skyscrapers A mother of a 9/11 victim launches a battle to fix a system she says betrayed her son.
By Lynne Topkis, Tech Live Originally posted September 11, 2002
Sally Regenhard, who lost her son Christian, a probationary firefighter on the scene at the World Trade Center on September 11, is the founder and chair of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign. Originally conceived as "Parents of Probies," to represent the 17 probationary firefighters lost at the World Trade Center, the organization quickly expanded to include the families of all firefighters, emergency workers, and civilian victims.
"Tech Live" recently sat down with Regenhard to talk with her about her organization's mission and why she feels she and her son were betrayed. Following is a transcript of the conversation.
TechTV: Why did you start the Skyscraper Safety Campaign?
Regenhard: I just knew that I was never going to accept what happened on 9/11. I would never accept it because of what happened to my son. I lost my son, probationary fire fighter Christian Michael Otto Regenhard, a 28 year old probationary firefighter who graduated from the Fire Academy only six weeks before 9/11. He was one of 17 probationary firefighters lost and one of 97 single firefighters.
TechTV: What is the goal of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign?
Regenhard: First of all, to have a complete comprehensive investigation on a federal level of all the conditions which combined to cause the World Trade Center to collapse. Looking at design, construction, architecture, evacuation procedures, firefighting techniques fireproofing, etc. (We) are about three-quarters of the way there. The government has agreed to do the investigation, NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is the lead agency. Right now the bill that establishes this passed the house. However, it is bogged down in the Senate in a bizarre procedure that a senator, who can remain anonymous, can put it to the side for some other bizarre reason. We are going to continue to advocate for this.
The second goal is to reform the building code in New York City. The third goal is to reform codes groups. Codes groups are groups of people that write building codes. Right now the majority of building codes groups are made up of builders, developers, financial people with hardly any representation from the fire service. It is a sad and bizarre irony that that building and fire codes are written by people who know next to nothing about fire and life safety. That must change. Another goal is to forever end the immunity that certain agencies, like the Port Authority, have to all building and fire code. You know the World Trade Center was constructed with 100 percent immunity to even one single city, state, or federal building code and to all New York City fire codes.
TechTV: Wasn't there an investigation done earlier this year into the causes of the collapse?
Regenhard: What we do have is something that masqueraded as an investigation. It was called a BPAT study (Building Performance Assessment Team Study), a building performance review study. The World Trade Center collapses in the largest building collapse on American soil. The largest loss of life on American soil since the Civil War. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and what does the government do? They initiate a building performance review study with FEMA, which is a non-investigatorial agency and a professional fraternal self-promoting organization called the American Society of Civil Engineers.
These two organizations that have no subpoena power, no investigatory authority, plus you're having an agency admit, essentially investigate itself, you're having this group investigate the members of their organization who built the World Trade Center. No wonder we have a bizarre report that people and the media, I'm sorry to say, take sound bites out of saying, I quote, "The buildings held up remarkably well." Well, I say to you ask the parents, you asked the loved ones of the 3,000 people that were crushed like cockroaches, you ask them if they thought the buildings held up remarkably well. That is asinine.
Remembering a son
TechTV: Tell us a little bit about your son, Christian.
Regenhard: My son was the most wonderful person that you could ever meet. He was a graduate of Bronx High School of Science. He also got into to Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech. He had a 146 IQ. He followed the family tradition of joining the United States Marine Corps. He was a Recon Marine. He was an artist, he studied art and writing at San Francisco State. He was a writer, he was totally bilingual in Spanish, which helped him in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to interact with the neighborhood with the people. He had more integrity in his pinky than the people that are responsible for the death and destruction.
TechTV: Why did he become a firefighter?
Regenhard: Well first of all it was an ideal opportunity for him to combine his brains, his brawn, and his tendency for helping people. Also there's a situation on the Fire Department where you can work for two 24-hour shifts and be off for three days. My son wanted to continue his study of art at either Cooper Union or Pratt and he felt that if he had the time, and he could do something that he wanted to do, helping people using his strength, using his brains and we have a tradition in my family of serving the City of New York, my husband was a detective sergeant in the NYPD who retired after 39 years. My husband retired on the same day that my son was appointed to the fire department. So that's why my son joined, to serve. Before that, he served this country five years in the military and he served the people of the city of New York.
Betrayed by the system?
TechTV: Do you have any opinions about the effectiveness of the emergency communication systems on that day?
Regenhard: This was a double knife in our heart. It was a knife in our heart when this happened to our son and it was a knife in our back when we found that out. Think of how we feel. My husband gives 39 years of his life in the NYPD and then we find out that the NYPD and the fire department don't communicate. We find out that the police department knew 21 minutes before that tower number two was in danger of collapsing. That's where my son was rumored to be. No one to this day from the fire department has told me where my son was, where he was sent and why he was sent there and what on Earth they thought they were going to accomplish with no plan and radios that didn't work. I feel betrayed that New York City was wearing a cloak of competence on September 11th, everybody thought that we had a system that worked. Now we find out that the fire department, the police department don't speak to one another and the radios don't work.
TechTV: Is there anything else that you would like to say?
Regenhard: For 11 months, instead of mourning, instead of grieving, instead of going to therapy, and helping ourselves, we have had to fight. Fighting the federal government for a proper investigation, fighting the city and state of New York to do something, to have an investigation. We still have nothing. And now I have to fight the police department and the fire department
This is what the parents and the relatives of victims' have to do. Everyday when I get up I have another battle. I can never relax, I can never take it easy. People who say, "Oh we're not going to have widespread changes in building code." We must have widespread changes. For the last three decades, we allowed economic interests to take precedence over the sanctity and the safeguarding of human life. I am so impressed by the AIA, which is the American Institute of Architects. They came to the congressional hearings in Washington regarding the collapse of the World Trade Center. And when they speak, they speak to the higher ground. We have enough people on the lower ground. The lower ground are builders, some builders. Some builders, some developers, and some structural engineers, who are more concerned with economic considerations and covering their butts then they are in true reform.
I must tell you something -- my son and the 343 firefighters were betrayed by the system, they were betrayed by a system that allows buildings of any height, of any size, to be built of any bizarre construction method such as the World Trade Center. It allows these buildings and developers to walk away from these buildings and to allow it, the fire department, to figure out how to defend these buildings, how to safeguard human life, and how to save their own lives. My son was betrayed. I am going to change the system.