In N.Y., Sept. 11 is personal

Testimony: Families and former officials show their emotions as the panel investigating the terrorist attacks conducts hearings in Manhattan.

May 19, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - It's the kind of rough water a former secretary of the Navy would never encounter in Washington.

The latest round of public hearings held by the 9/11 commission brought its members from Washington to Lower Manhattan, just 1 1/2 miles from Ground Zero, and shifted the subject of their investigation - from alleged U.S. intelligence failures before the terrorist attack to New York City's possible emergency response deficiencies. Similarly, the tenor of the proceedings changed.

Republican commission member John F. Lehman raked former city officials over the coals for turf battles that he believes hampered fire and police response to the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, charging that miscommunication between their agencies was "not worthy of the Boy Scouts, let alone this great city."

The accused officials didn't bother to beg to differ. They simply fired back at the former Navy secretary.

"I couldn't disagree with you more," snapped former Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. "I think it's outrageous that you make a statement like that."

"We're no different than any other city, and if you think we are you're being foolish," added Richard Sheirer, former director of the city's Office of Emergency Management.

If bureaucratic infighting characterized the last round of hearings, with current and former Bush administration officials dispassionately seeking to pin the blame on each other, this time a more New York-style, in-your-face combativeness was the mode.

Dramatic footage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center playing on a big screen in the auditorium of the New School University here added a more overtly emotional overtone to the proceedings. The hearings, and perhaps the fireworks, continue today, when former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge testify.

The New School's auditorium offered more space than the Capitol Hill hearing room previously used by the panel. And being closer to the trade center site meant that about 400 friends and relatives of victims were in attendance. They're the omnipresent, collective conscience of Sept. 11; many clutched pictures of lost loved ones that ranged from lapel pins to 8-by-10 framed photographs straight from the mantel.

Sally Regenhard - whose 28-year-old son, Christian, was one of the firefighters killed in the World Trade Center attack - sat in a section of seats reserved for family members and reacted to testimony by periodically holding up small, hand-made signs that read either "Truth" or "Lies."

Democratic commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste asked two other former New York officials if the FBI failed to provide constructive guidance during the summer of 2001's heightened al-Qaida security alerts.

Regenhard didn't wait for a response. Up went the "Truth" sign. A commission staffer quietly ordered her to stop, but she brought along a lawyer friend who brokered a First Amendment compromise: Regenhard could flash her signs as long as they didn't block anyone's view.

Outside the hearing room, 17-year-old Daniel Yule, a Lyndon Larouche disciple from nearby Ridgefield Park, N.J., planted himself on a corner across from New School University, handing out literature that lays the blame for 9/11 and so much more of the world's ills squarely on Vice President Dick Cheney's shoulders.

But inside the auditorium, the fingers were pointed at former emergency response chiefs, something of a switch in this city that still mourns the huge losses among firefighters and other rescue workers who rushed to the towers that chaotic day.

Family members wept, held hands and sometimes flinched as they watched footage of the towers under attack and then collapsing in smoky rubble, with their loved ones inside.

"You just look at it and think a million horrible thoughts," said Katie Murphy, whose brother Charlie died in the attack. "I'm really wondering: `Were you able to get out? Were you injured and suffering? Were you in the stairwell or heading up to the roof? Where were you? Are you one of those people waving from the windows?'"

For all the words that have been spilled over 9/11, the hearings proved still capable of yielding nuggets of information and anecdotes. A multimedia timeline of Sept. 11 events included a remarkable on-camera interview with survivor Stanley Praimnath, an executive at Mizuho Corporate Bank, who was in his office when the second plane approached the South Tower.

"I am still seeing the letter `U' on its tail, and the plane is bearing down on me," Praimnath recalled. "The bottom wing sliced right through the office and it stuck in my office door 20 feet away from where I huddled under my desk."

Another survivor told of his frustrations trying to call for help.

"From the 44th floor, I called 911. They put me on hold," said Brian Clark. "Suddenly, I was [again] on hold. I waited a considerable amount of time, and it happened again. I was on hold. I told the third person, `I'm only telling you this once.'"

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