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Families of 9-11 Victims Still Cope with Pain, Stress - 2002-09-07

The first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington is being marked by ceremonies and special media reports replaying footage from the disaster and its aftermath. But how are the relatives of the victims coping with the many tributes?

"This is where we used to have lunch. I used to work around the corner, and we came here for lunch - in the good old days," says Monica Gabrielle.

For Mrs. Gabrielle, the "good old days" were before her husband was killed on September 11, 2001. Richard Gabrielle worked on the 103rd floor of Tower Two of the World Trade Center. He was last seen waiting to be rescued on the 78th floor.

Now, Mrs. Gabrielle sits with her new friend, Sally Regenhard, who lost her 28-year-old son, Christian, when the twin towers collapsed. Christian was a probationary firefighter in his sixth week on the job.

The widow and the mother are joined by their common loss. They are angry at the terrorists, who flew hijacked planes into the twin towers, causing their collapse. And they are on a quest for answers to how the tragedy could have been prevented. "We are angry at everyone responsible for building those towers of doom," she said. "We are angry at the airlines for having no security system, for allowing those planes to be hijacked. You know, the planes started the problem, the buildings finished the problem."

For weeks, Mrs. Regenhard, who founded the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, has gone from interview to interview, fearing that after this year's anniversary, no one will want to listen to her message. Repeatedly, she explains her fight for a public inquiry into the collapse, building code reform and improved communication technology for firefighters. "We sound very angry, we sound very determined," she says. "But there is not a day that goes by, morning and night, when we do not cry, because our heart is broken. We are devastated. We lost people who were beautiful, wonderful people. My son could have changed this world. He could have helped the world. He did change the world in his own way."

Many relatives of victims say the anniversary is causing an emotional backslide. Reporters, photographers, politicians - everyone wants their attention. The burden has fallen on a handful of people, willing to venture forth into the public eye, including Mrs. Gabrielle. "We are both hoping to get through it, and we made a pact," says Monica Gabrielle. "We are going to try to get through it by doing media that day [the anniversary], and getting our message across, and try to stay away from the emotional, because it is going to be hard enough. I'm hanging on by a thread right now."

Mrs. Gabrielle says the public has been shielded from the true horror of September 11. Many relatives of victims do not know if their loved ones suffered, or for how long. They live with the knowledge that a spouse, parent, or child, was literally obliterated. For the one third of victims whose remains were recovered and identified, only mutilated body-parts, or tiny bone fragments were found.

Mrs. Gabrielle's husband has not been among them. "These are the things we go to bed with," she explains. "These are the things we wake up with. We have not gotten a recovery, and I do not think I want that call. I have enough of a nightmare wondering what Rich went through. I do not think to tell me that they found a small piece of him will give me any comfort. It is just going to reinforce how horrible it was."

Nikki Stern hopes her husband, Jim Potorti, who worked on the 96th floor of the first tower hit, was killed quickly. "People have asked me, do I picture the moment of his death? Of course I do. I always will," says Nikki Stern.

Like so many relatives, Ms. Stern watched the twin towers collapse on live television. Now, a spokesperson and advocate for families of 9-11, she struggles through painful waves of grief to articulate a terrible experience. "The nature of this particular situation has been so public, it has been so relentless," she says. "I do not know if a day goes by when you cannot turn on the television, pick up a magazine and see the towers on fire. It is not the kind of experience you would have, if you lost a loved one in a car accident, or even a horrible murder, anything. It is not continually revisited upon you."

Many families still have to make decisions about applying for death certificates and compensation, and calling about remains, which, Ms. Stern says, make this first anniversary "terribly difficult." She says families will choose to cope in different ways. "And there is an enormous range of reactions among family members, from going down to Ground Zero and standing with 10,000 people for four hours to be there because that is where their loved ones died, to "I am going to be as far away from the city as possible," she said."

Ms. Stern says she doubts the first anniversary will give her any closure. She says her support group of 9-11 families has identified September 12 as the "bad day." "Because on the 12, what you realize is, everybody [else] had this ceremony so they could kind of dust their hands, and go [say] 'okay, we got through that.' And that is not what the families can do," she says. "That is just not possible. It is not a closure. It is a closure for the rest of the world, unfortunately. But not for the families."

Nikki Stern says she will always remember her last conversation with her husband, on the crystal clear morning of September 11, 2001. "Before he left, he pulled up the blanket and I said 'play hooky' [stay home]. And he said 'I can't.' And he gave me a kiss. And that was it. That was it," she says.