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9/11 five years on

David Usborne / London Independent | September 3 2006

Nearly 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks on New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. Many more thousands of loved ones saw their lives shattered at a stroke. Over the next six pages we remember the dead, and talk to some of those left behind about the rebuilding of their lives. Here, David Usborne, who witnessed the attacks in New York, reports on life today in his scarred city

There will be some extra bustle this week at Ground Zero, where the twin towers once stood. As the fifth anniversary of the 11 September terror attacks approaches, more people than usual will be coming to the grey pit that remains and studying the photographs of the horror that are attached to the chain link fence.

It is a sterile place nowadays. New York has taken all this time to untangle conflicting interests surrounding plans for the new the Freedom Tower, Memorial Museum and assorted office, retail and cultural buildings. The fights over insurance money, safety standards for the new structures and over what victims' families consider appropriate for their sacred soil have mostly finished and, finally, some foundations are being dug. But building site or not, Ground Zero still makes heavy demands on your emotions.

Step away from this wound and you quickly conclude that New York has moved past the slaughter that happened in its midst with almost unseemly dispatch. Back again is the city's old swagger, fuelled by a new economic boom. Friends of mine have just bought an apartment across from the Stock Exchange, joining the rush for new luxury abodes in converted office buildings that is happening all over Manhattan. That they will be sleeping blocks away from Ground Zero is no longer an issue. It's a hip area to live, or will be.

To want to forget is normal, even if you are someone who suffered personally from the attacks - perhaps especially for them. As we began the work of interviewing relatives of victims for this anniversary report, to catch some glimpse of how they have repaired their lives, we found that many were no longer ready to participate. A woman who lost her father had just given birth to her first baby. A rescue worker had recently started a new life in Oklahoma. Neither was ready to rehash the pain.

Yet, forgetting is not always easy and nor is averting your eyes. Reminders are everywhere, sometimes hiding beneath a white tent next to the FDR Drive by the East River or behind black cloth draped down the façade of an old bank building. Five years on, the turmoil wrought by 9/11 is far from over, whether it is expressed in political squabbles or in the drip-drip of new inquiry reports or freshly released tapes of emergency rescue conversations. If not by these, we are assaulted by things 9/11 in art, including movies from Hollywood, or in media stories of firefighters' widows finding love with other firefighters.

Even I prefer to turn away, even though mine was the pain merely of having watched the sinking of the towers first-hand. I did see one film this summer, United 93. Worse, I went to the premiere in a cinema filled with relatives of dead passengers. It was not an easy evening. Tapes released only last month of dispatchers talking with desperate rescue personnel and trapped office workers at the scene were also too hard to listen to. Here is an emergency telephone operator trying to soothe Melissa Doi, a financial systems manager, after her tower was hit. She was on the 83rd floor.

Operator: "Melissa... right? Gonna call your mom when you get out, come and see how you're doing... Hey, Melissa? Oh my God... Melissa, do not give up. Please, please, don't give up Melissa. Please do not give up. Oh my God. Melissa, Melissa, Melissa. Want me to call your mother for you and tell her to hold on? (The dial tone begins.) "Oh, Melissa."

Only today are we grasping the range of damage done to the health, mental and physical, of New Yorkers. A study issued two weeks ago suggests that one in six of those in the clean-up crews now have depression. The number of calls to the city's mental health hotline doubled in the week after the attacks and it is still at that elevated number now. Last Thursday, the city for the first time published guidelines on diagnosing physical illnesses directly related to 9/11. "Five year after the World Trade Center attacks, many New Yorkers have disaster-associated physical and mental health conditions," the city's health commissioner, Thomas Frieden, acknowledged.

Even our attitudes towards those on the frontline of grief - the wives, husbands and children of the victims - are still in flux. Anne Coulter, the right-wing opinion writer, made few friends when she asserted this year that some widows of 9/11 were "self-obsessed" and were "enjoying their husband's deaths". A small core of victims' relatives have taken the lead in lobbying the government on a variety of post 9/11 issues, including on amending and delaying the blueprints for the new World Trade Center, but maybe Coulter was channelling hidden public jealousy over the money they have received - up to $1.5m per fireman's widow from a federal compensation fund.

Money-envy is also surely behind the stories that occasionally appear in the tabloids about firemen leaving their wives for the widows of former colleagues. And then there is the case of the rock star, Bruce Springsteen, who last week found himself denying reports he was splitting with his wife, Patti, to take up with a widow of a 9/11 fireman.

But to fully grasp why closure still has not come five years later you need only to look at the black-draped building and to the tent. The first is the former Deutsche Bank tower, a 43-storey tower right next to Ground Zero that is awaiting demolition. It is still standing because of what is inside - pieces of plane and, distressingly, of human bodies. This year, workers dressed in hazard suits and respirators have recovered no fewer than 750 individual remains of victims of the attack, hurled into the bank by the impact of the planes. It is to the tent, uptown on 30th Street and First Avenue, that this new evidence of atrocity is taken.

Called Memorial Park, the tent protects three climate-controlled lorry containers, inside which are stored 13,790 remains of the twin tower victims. They are there awaiting new DNA technology that may one day allow scientists definitively to match each of them to the names of victims who died. That may be a long time, and before then they will be transferred to the Memorial at Ground Zero itself when it is finally built. These remains are testament to perhaps the saddest and most frustrating piece of unfinished 9/11 business. So far, medical examiners have identified only 1,598 victims, leaving 1,151 people still to be accounted for at Ground Zero. And that has left 1,151 families with no remains to honour and bury.

The Minister: 'Killing other innocent people will not bring my brother back'

William Bethke, 36, died in the north tower. His sister, Rev Myrna Bethke, lives in Red Bank, New Jersey.

Myrna Bethke knows now that her youngest brother was killed instantly when the plane hit the first tower - it ploughed directly into his office. Yet in the days following the attack, the family posted missing pictures and her brothers searched the hospitals, like so many others. But unlike them, Myrna had church responsibilities to attend to too.

"In the chaos after the attack I was on a continuum between what was happening to me personally and dealing with my congregation professionally," says Myrna, 49. "I was grieving a personal loss but we also had worship every day that week. We kept the church doors open so people could come in and pray when they wanted to." The biblical texts, she believes, gave people a way to voice their rage, anger, fear and confusion in the immediate aftermath of 11 September.

Looking back to the weeks immediately after 9/11, the overwhelming feeling she remembers is numbness. She describes going to the grocery store and wondering how she could still do such normal, everyday things.

The bombing of Afghanistan at the beginning of October spurred Myrna's involvement in a peace group. "Killing innocent people in Afghanistan was not going to bring my brother back," she says. "I know there are people out there who would think that is a fitting vindication, but for me it wasn't." For her, 11 September made it more important to become better educated about world issues and more active in establishing inter-faith relationships with the Islamic community.

"I know it sounds weird, but since 9/11 the world has just opened up for me," she says."You have to decide whether you're going to rise to these occasion or sink. Hopefully I've risen to them." A year after her brother died Myrna visited Afghanistan with an organisation called Global Exchange to see some of the devastation brought about by the coalition bombing and also to share experiences with people there who had also lost relatives as a result of the conflict. It was a way to establish positive relationships in the face of terrible violence.

Myrna is trying to teach her congregation about other faiths, to make people more aware of the history of terrorism and conflict. Regular trips to the local mosque with her confirmation classes help break some stereotypes. "They're used to hearing the media portrayal of Islam and they're often surprised with what they see."

Has she moved on, five years after the catastophe? "I don't think that there really is closure in moving on. Grief softens and it's now got a different texture to it. You learn to weave that experience into the fabric of your life but you don't get over something like that."

Sarah Harris

The Father: 'Every day I wonder what happened to my son'

Neil Cudmore died at the age of 39. He worked in the north tower. His father, Jim, lives in Little Houghton, Northamptonshire.

Jim Cudmore is now able to laugh at some of the things his eldest son got up to. He is convinced that Neil, who he says brought happiness and friendship to those around him, is still being talked about in offices and bars on three continents.

"I remember thinking in those early days that I would like to get to the stage where I could talk about him without having difficulty in speaking," says Jim, 69.

Neil, who was marketing director of Risk Waters, a London-based conference organising and publishing firm, was attending its first event at the Windows on the World restaurant on the 106th floor of the north tower. Dinah Webster, his fiancée and the firm's advertising manager, to whom he had engaged just weeks before, also died.

Jim knows nothing about how Neil died, which makes the loss even more unbearable. There have been no remains of Neil or Dinah to bury. Instead of a headstone, there is a bench dedicated to them in the graveyard of the Dorset village where Neil had a house. "Not a day goes by when I don't wonder what happened to him," says Jim, a retired corporate treasurer. He makes a point of watching material shown about 9/11 - he plans next week to record a television drama documentary, to watch when he feels strong, in the hope of discovering something about Neil's death. "However much it hurts me, I feel I have to know as much as I can about what happened."

Losing the eldest of his four children has changed him dramatically, he says. "I'm not the happy-go-lucky person I was. It's made me more aware of living for today and not worrying about tomorrow. It's made the family more aware of what we have and how lucky we are. I have moved on, but the pain hasn't really diminished. And I think that's true for the rest of my family and very true of the other families involved," says Jim, who at times still breaks down when he talks of his son.

He has never felt hatred for the people who murdered his son, just animosity towards those behind them. "There must have been an awful lot of funding from sources close to al-Qa'ida and I would like to see those people bankrupted."

One of Jim's greatest sources of comfort is the September 11 UK Families Support Group, of which he has been treasurer since it was set up in May 2002. It meets twice a year in London. Tears continue to be shed at the meetings. "We don't know how we could have got through without the support of the group and the intense friendship between us and Dinah's family," says Jim.

As usual, on 11 September the group will meet at the memorial garden in Grosvenor Square, London. "The fifth anniversary isn't special to us. It's exactly the same as the others."

Julia Stuart

The Son: 'Pray for our enemies and forgive them? That I cannot do'

Bob Halligan died aged 59 in the south tower. His son, Rob, lives in Coventry.

The last time Rob Halligan saw his father was on a trip to America a few months before the attacks. He vividly remembers him standing in the pouring rain, a gin and tonic in one hand, and an umbrella in the other, determined to barbecue a fish.

Bob, a director of the reinsurance firm AON, and a father of six who had been married four times, had lived in the US for more than 20 years with his American wife. "He was a very friendly guy and had a brilliant sense of humour. He was really supportive of what I was doing, particularly my music," says Rob, 36, a singer/songwriter.

Rob has used his music to help him cope with the grief. "I was determined to find some sort of hope out of it all rather than just feel bitter. And I guess in a way that has stayed with me."
After visiting Ground Zero and attending a memorial service for his father, Rob wrote a number of songs inspired by the tragedy, and his father. One of his favourites, "The Birds are Still Singing", was very much about hope: "The dark clouds are fighting for the best piece of sky, but the sun still has its way and the birds are still singing and you're not far away."

When he returned to the UK, he held two concerts for the Red Cross, and recorded a CD of one of the songs, "Streets of This Town", which raised about £1,000.

After the South Asian tsunami, he combined a number of local bands and they recorded another of the songs, "Stand Together". It was released as a single, reached number 30 in the Indy charts, and raised around £13,000 for charity. He has spent much of the compensation he was awarded for his father's death on fundraising.

The father of two now does part-time administration work for a drop-in centre for the homeless, rather than for a business, as he did before the attacks. And while he tours this month, he will be promoting fair trade.

"In some ways a lot of good things have happened. Our family has known a lot of healing. We are spread out and a lot of people have got back together. There had been bad feelings and that was put to one side," he said.

The family also organised a get-together for his grandmother, the first time that all her grandchildren had ever been together in one place.

Rob, an active Christian, plans to go to Coventry Cathedral on the anniversary. However, he has not been able to follow all the church's teachings. "The biggest thing for me is that God says you have to pray for your enemies and forgive them. That's not something that I can do. I've tried to understand what these people did and why, but I haven't been able to totally forgive them. But part of me wants to get there.

"I don't want to live with bitterness. It's that kind of thing that causes tragedies like 9/11."

Julia Stuart

The Theorist: 'The hijackers were patsies and Osama bin Laden was set up'

Bobby McIlvaine, 26, worked for Merrill Lynch and was on the 103rd floor of the south tower when the plane struck. His father, Bob, lives in Oreland, near Philadelphia

Three months ago, Bob McIlvaine was pulled over in his home town of Oreland, near Philadelphia, for driving through a red light. Instead of apologising to the police officer, he went nuts. "I totally blew up, I threw all my papers in his face and called him Mickey Mouse and an asshole."

Bob, a former school teacher, recognises he has anger problems and also knows where they come from. On 9/11, he lost his son, 26-year-old Bobby, who had just begun working for the media department of Merrill Lynch and who was heading to a seminar on the 103rd floor of the south tower when the planes struck. And he is certain that criminals within the US government were responsible, not Osama bin Laden.

For the first few years, after the terror attack, Bob, 61, dedicated himself to anti-war groups that sprung up in its wake. He joined protesters pushing a massive stone dedicated to world peace down the highways of New England to New York and, last year, from Nagasaki to Hiroshima.

Today, he has withdrawn from those groups, however, to concentrate on a project he expects to take up the rest of his life: documenting and writing about the conspiracy that he believes was really responsible for the felling of the twin towers.

"I spend all my time researching 9/11," he admits. "Today, there are no ifs or buts in my mind that this was an inside job. The US government orchestrated it with the help of MI6 and Pakistan and Mossad. What they are telling us is bullshit. The hijackers were patsies and Osama bin Laden was set up."

He has no choice to continue with his quest for what he believes is the truth, he explains. " I feel empowered, now that I have some better understanding of what happened. My son was murdered and there is no plausibility to what they say."

But for all his focus on research, Bob is still far away from coming to terms with what happened. Losing his temper quickly is one symptom. "I will never be at peace. The pain never, never goes away, but the suffering isn't as bad."

But at least there is some perspective these days around the grief. "My wife, Helen, and I do more things nowadays and there are other problems to attend to. And we talk and laugh about Bobby now. That is something."

David Usborne

The Campaigner: 'My wife said that now I am too serious all the time'

James Potorti was one of the 295 employees of Marsh & McLennan who died when the first plane hit the northern tower. His brother, David, lives in North Carolina.

David Potorti recalls the agony as the news that his brother's workplace had been attacked. "I didn't know if he was dead," he says. "I didn't know if he was at his desk, or whether he was downstairs buying a newspaper, or in the bathroom washing his hands." It was three days before the family had confirmation that James was dead. "There was this terrific sadness," says David. "I was sad for him, sad for me, sad for his wife and my parents - but I was also angry. I asked myself, how could a country with so much wealth and power have allowed this to happen?"

After 11 September, David says he is a different person. "I try to listen more and talk less." His marriage broke up recently which is due in part, David says, to the real change in his personality. "My wife said that I'm not the man she married," he says. "She said I'm too serious all the time." The separation is, he says, "a terrible irony. You're putting all this energy into stopping something from destroying your family from the outside, but then something happens to destroy it from the inside - the people closest to you."

Rather than anger or a desire for revenge, his brother's death left James concerned that events should not be allowed to escalate in his name. "I didn't want my brother's death to be an excuse to kill even more innocent people, who are just like my family. It was like I had this instant connection with people on the other side of the world."

David founded Peaceful Tomorrows to educate people about the importance of inter-faith relationships and religious tolerance. The group works in schools across the states. At one school he addressed in New Jersey he said to the students: "I don't feel like an American right now; I feel like I'm part of something much bigger." His comments were met with criticism by staff in the spirit of patriotism that followed 9/11, condemned for being "un-American".

"The fifth anniversary is a really difficult one because everything we predicted five years ago has now happened. We said that if we started this path towards violence that is would only escalate out of control - and it has."

On an emotional level, David says the past five years have made him a more serene person. "September 11 has forced me to have greater contact with spiritual issues and the God of my understanding and helped me to learn to accept the way life is. There is nothing unique about what I am going through, but I am now more accepting of this as a reality."

Sarah Harris

The Mother: 'It is worse than ever. You run on adrenalin and then it hits you'

Christian Regenhard died aged 28 when the south tower collapsed. His mother, Sally, lives in New York.

"I wasn't this sort of person before. I was an ordinary person, a shy person, though no one can believe it," says Sally Regenhard, explaining the "crusade" that has consumed her life since her son, Christian, a 28-year-old fireman, died in the rubble of the south tower.

For five years, Sally has been leading an effort, with help from her husband, Al, a retired police detective, to force the authorities to improve safety standards for tall buildings in the city. Her organisation, the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, has also fought alongside the New York Times to pressure the Fire Department to release tapes of phone conversations during the chaos of the rescue operation.

Five years on, she is exhausted. "It is taking a physical and emotional toll on me." But she has never felt able to stop pursuing her causes, because she owed it to her son and because of a sense of anger that simply won't go away.

"I can't accept that this happened to my son and I will never accept it," she says, struggling to fight back the tears. "My son, his energy, his fabulous life, his sense of justice - how could I walk away from that? It is really a battle between good and evil and a society that puts more value on economic considerations than on the safety and sanctify of human life."

The frustration never goes away. The Regenhards are one of more than 1,000 families who have never received the remains of their lost ones or had even a tiny fragment of their shattered bodies to bury. Nor have the former commanders at her son's old fire station in Brooklyn been able to tell her exactly how her son died.

Christian, a former Marine sergeant who had just started as probationary firefighter, is meanwhile watching as she works, she says. "He is definitely with me. There are times when I want to pray to him and ask him for help". Three weeks ago, the fire department did release tapes and she heard confirmation for the first time that her son's crew had been sent to the south tower.

Sally was also involved with other relatives earlier this year, lobbying to move a wall of remembrance from underground to the surface and camping out in the cold at Ground Zero to make the point.

"One night this beautiful innocent kid from Indiana thought we were homeless people and handed me a quarter," she says. "It was a sign from God: Jesus had come and was telling us we would win."

Activism has been her way of coping. And is she any better after five years? "I am worse than I ever was," she replies. "In the first few years, you're running on adrenalin. Only now is it really hitting."

David Usborne

The Widower: 'When I meet a woman, I have this albatross around my neck'

Swansea-born Katherine Wolf was killed instantly when the first plane hit the northern tower. Her husband Charles, 52, lives in New York.

"I made a vow in church the first Sunday after 9/11 that they may have got my wife, but they're not getting the rest of my life," says Charles, 52. He was at home in the couple's lower Manhattan apartment when he heard the roar of the first plane overhead. Katherine had only been working for the company for two weeks and had gone into work early on the morning of 11 September. She was working on the 97th floor and would have been sitting about four cubicles away from the window on the west side - details that Charles has fought tirelessly to comprehend since the attacks.

"It's not a matter of knowing every single detail, but it's a matter of knowing enough detail," he says. "I badly needed to put the story together. At the speed the airplane was going it would have hit the central line of the building in less than a second - too fast for anybody to perceive anything. You know those nights when you put your head on the pillow and you are just out - it would have been just like that, and it's a great comfort to know that."

Before his wife's death, they had been discussing having children. He describes the loneliness of the first few weeks on his own in the city. "I can remember walking down the street to get some food because I realised I hadn't eaten and thinking, where is she? And why isn't she here with me?"

Life has moved on, but Charles lives in the same building, goes to work ever day at the direct marketing company he founded with Katherine, and he tries to push on with projects they shared, including a local neighbourhood association which they were both very involved in. Charles says that having control over his environment and making things happen helped him through the worst times.

He has also made his debut as a film extra - for Oliver Stone's controversial film World Trade Center. Although his appearance didn't make the final cut, he says he is glad he had the opportunity to participate. The opportunity came out of his campaigning work; he has been involved in many 9/11 projects, including the victim compensation campaign, Fix the Fund.

"If you look for the good in a situation like this then it's that I've learnt so many wonderful things. I've learnt what I'm made of and I am a much stronger person, but I would never trade this knowledge or strength for my wife. We were everything to each other. She was my best friend."

Charles has had one relationship since, and five years on feels ready for something serious, but is aware of being an 11 September widower. "When I meet a woman, having lost my wife in 9/11 is an albatross around my neck. The terrorists still reach a little farther than I would like and continue to affect my life in many ways."

Sarah Harris

 

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