MADISON -- Two women, one who lost a son, the other her husband, told Tom Kean and his national 9/11 commission Wednesday that their loved ones might have survived the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center had the Port Authority followed fire safety codes and New York City provided its firefighters with proper communications equipment.
"On 9/11 the cloak of competence was pulled off the City of New York," said Sally Regenhard, whose 28-year-old son Christian, a probationary firefighter in Engine Company 279, was among the 343 fighters killed on Sept. 11. "On that dreadful day, we found out how ill-prepared we really were and this knowledge came at an awful price," Regenhard told the committee.
Regenhard, founder of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, was among a half dozen witnesses who testified about the lack of uniform national standards for fire safety and terrorism-resistant skyscrapers at the day-long public hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, held at Drew University. The bipartisan, 10-member commission was created by Congress to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks and make recommendations by May on how to improve the nation's preparedness and guard against future disasters.
The hearings, which focused on emergency preparedness in the private sector, sought to shed light on ways the government and private industry can collaborate on terrorism training.
The nation risks great perils if officials continue to ignore the absence of safety standards and incentives for the private sector, said Kean, the commission's chairman and president of Drew University.
"Much attention has centered on the government's role," Kean said. "What is lost is that 85 percent of our nation's critical infrastructure is not controlled by the federal government, state government, or local government -- it is the private sector."
The former New Jersey governor said many of the companies operating in the World Trade Center lacked evacuation plans or had not practiced them so that people did not know what to do that day.
Many of the 300 in attendance at Wednesday's hearings, including two Morris County residents who lost relatives in the attacks, attended hoping to hear an update on the commission's progress in prying classified intelligence briefings from the White House.
After the hearings ended, Kean and vice-chair Lee Hamilton announced they will reveal the terms of the compromise brokered with the Bush administration today. They also will name the two commission members who will be allowed to review all the documents.
Barry Zelman of Dover, the brother of Kenneth Zelman, a software consultant who died in Tower One of the World Trade Center, came to the meeting wearing a large button bearing his brother's photo and a sign that read: "My brother and 2,999 others deserved the privilege of a warning."
Zelman, who has advocated for the truth about how much the government knew before the attacks, said he was shocked to hear Regenhard's testimony about the inadequate fire safety design of the towers.
"I was astounded to hear the Port Authority has its own standards," Zelman said. "It was heart breaking to hear some people could have been evacuated if (the city's) safety standards were in place. To have firefighters go in with no input on the safety of the structure is ludicrous."
The testimony about firefighters not hearing evacuation orders because of faulty radio communications was especially difficult to hear for Loretta Viglione of Parsippany. Viglione's brother Tommy Sabella, a Ladder 13 firefighter from Staten Island, was last seen helping people between the first and ninth floors of Tower One.
"He walked into his death," Viglione said. "My brother talked about the radios. He said they never were clear."
Regenhard, of the Bronx, and the skyscraper campaign's co-chair Monica Gabrielle, of Connecticut, both fought back tears as they beseeched the commission to hold building owners and developers responsible and accountable for not following fire safety codes.
They said the Port Authority was not required to follow New York's fire safety building codes, nor is it following these codes in the new building designs.
"I look at this commission as our last chance," Regenhard said. "Please help us. We're counting on you."
Gabrielle's husband Richard, an insurance executive for AON Corp., was waiting to be rescued on the 78th floor of Tower One, pinned under debris. Two firefighters had reached him, she said but it turned out to be too late and soon the building collapsed.
Gabrielle blamed the Port Authority for not heeding the lessons of the 1993 bombing. Although some safety improvements were made -- the building's substandard fireproofing still had not been completely overhauled by the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Port Authority also never prepared its tenants for the possibility of a full evacuation of the towers' 55,000 occupants, she said.
"Unbelievably, with all the warnings, the Port Authority, in its arrogance claiming that these were indestructible buildings, never prepared the tenants for this eventuality," Gabrielle said.
The two women said they are placing their hopes in the power of the commission to overhaul building standards for skyscrapers. They said they have no where else to turn. They said stairwells need to be widened, stairwell doors should be left unlocked and fire safety experts should be consulted in creating these safety codes.
They also asked the commission to question New York City's former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and his fire and police commissioners on the city's lack of a unified command structure and the failure of firefighters' radio communications.
Kean and Hamilton later said the commission will be calling on officials from New York City, although they did not mention who specifically will be asked to testify.
Beginning in January, Kean said he hopes to have public hearings with top federal and New York officials. The commission has been gathering evidence and testimony so that the questioning of those witnesses can be thorough.
"They're not going to be available more than once," Kean said.
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