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Still Hard at Work, Wielding Questions, Science and Steel
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
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
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
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."
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© 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
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN