BY SALLY REGENHARD
On September 11, 2001, my world came to an end. I had a sinking feeling that morning that my son, Christian Michael Otto Regenhard, who had graduated from the FDNY Fire Academy just six weeks prior to 9-11, somehow would be involved in this incomprehensible aberration. Unfortunately, he was stationed close enough to the scene, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, just a short ride over the Brooklyn Bridge.
I never ever in my wildest nightmares would have envisioned the awful, heartbreaking, life-shattering truth that was about to unfold. As the nightmarish day passed, alternating between phone calls and being glued to the TV, well-meaning relatives and friends offered words of encouragement such as, “Don’t worry, probies aren’t allowed to go into big fires like this.” “Only senior firefighters can handle such things; probies don’t have all the skills yet.”
I don’t think I really believed this, yet I wanted to. As the day wore on, I was confident that Christian was just totally in-volved in what he was doing. As hours turned into the even-ing, I became mildly annoyed that he did not call me. The feeling of dread and fear grew when I called his fire station and got evasive answers: “There is so much confusion.” “People have been reassigned.” “Call back later.” I received these replies over and over again. Finally, at the end of the night, an emotionally drained firefighter answered the phone in exasperation. No longer able to fend off the calls of frantic loved ones, he finally uttered the four words no one—no mother, especially—would ever want to hear: “He … is … unaccounted … for ….”
Unaccounted for? What does that mean? I wondered. Isn’t that a term used in a war? Unaccounted for! Isn’t that like being “missing in action”? It was so frightening and so shocking. That subtle feeling of doom that lurked near me all day now shrouded me in its dark cloak. I was overcome with fear.
That night, as I lay trembling in my bed, I prayed and prayed for a miracle. Each time I awoke, the reality of what happened hit me. I began to realize that the most unbelievable and shockingly unspeakable event might be happening to my family and me. WHERE WAS CHRISTIAN?
HOPING AGAINST HOPE
Day after day dragged on. I was glued to the TV and radio. I posted “missing person” signs all over New York City, giving radio and TV interviews in which I described Christian: his U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) tattoo, his beautiful face, those blue eyes. I hired a private detective to search the New York metropolitan area hospitals, hoping that he had been sent to New Jersey. A person could get lost in New Jersey, I thought … right!
We focused not on Christian’s being buried in the rubble but on his ability to survive. After all, he was a Recon Marine sergeant, a veteran of the SEER course, who once ate bugs and drank rainwater to complete a grueling survival course. He survived being stranded for a weekend while rock climbing on Mt. Whitney, in a typhoon in South America, and at least three separate muggings on the streets of New York and in the cities of South America! If anyone could survive, surely it would be him … if anyone could survive.
At first it was thought that as many as 7,000 people were lost. The numbers kept shrinking, but an astounding 3,000 still remained “unaccounted for,” including 343 firefighters! Urban legends abounded, offering glimmers of hope. The lowest concourse level was rumored to be relatively intact. We fantasized about visions of our survivalist Recon Marine existing on provisions of the underground restaurants—teaching the others how to conserve, how to survive until the rescue.
We had heard that in other countries people had been pulled alive from the rubble after as long as four weeks. The TV news show 48 Hours did a feature segment on Christian and our search for him. The narrator used a phrase that stayed in my mind—she ended with the fact that the family is still hopeful, but “time is dragging on.”
Shockingly, horrifyingly, no one was being found alive! The urban legends continued: A bird flew out of the deep excavation, singing. Surely, that was a sign that there was oxygen down there—that there could be life down there. Surely, there was still hope. We didn’t give up hoping, praying, and believing. When a family member would speak despondently, I wouldn’t allow it. I insisted that people remain positive, upbeat, faithful. Faithful till the end. Semper Fidelis. WHERE WAS CHRISTIAN?
The city held candlelight vigils. The local papers wrote stories of support, prayers, and encouragement. Many felt our pain, but the thing that essentially kept us going was the kindness and support of strangers. This new bonding with those who shared our grief ironically would be the thing that would keep me going to this day. But time was dragging on.
THE END OF HOPE
By October 11, four long weeks had passed, and no one else had been found alive. I don’t know exactly when I finally decided that I had to accept the fact that I would never see Christian again. It is something that slowly, steadily builds in your reality until it is just there. Even though he, as well as his entire engine company, was not recovered, I knew that I had to plan a fitting memorial for him.
(1) A piece of the plane found at the site.
During this dreadful time, many people came to visit daily, to pray with and for us, and bring food. Among the many people and fire department brothers who visited, one person stood out. He was the firefighter who served as our “family liaison,” Andy Serra. He worked with Christian at the Red Hook fire station. During the months ahead, we grew incredibly close to this young man; his caring, kindness, and compassion kept us alive during that time. He remains close to us to this day. Andy guided and supported the entire family and meticulously planned a beautiful and elegant homage of pageantry and honor that was an unforgettable tribute to an unforgettable person.
THE BIRTH OF A CRUSADE
It’s hard to remember exactly when the Skyscraper Safety Campaign (SSC) was born, but I think it must have been conceived when I saw the headline (October 2001) in the New York Daily News: “Two Professors Call for WTC Probe.” I had known from that deadly day, as I watched the towers burn and then crumble like pillars of salt—like a house of cards, like something in a third world country—that this was something that should never ever have happened!
I was so glad to see that other people felt the same way as I did. I reached out to the two in the article, Professor Glenn Corbett and Dr. Charles Jennings of the Division of Fire Science at John Jay College, New York City. Our conversations were the beginning of a yearlong odyssey of seeking truth and justice, and of being stymied every inch of the way by a dysfunctional system.
Searching for the truth and desperately seeking leadership became a long and arduous journey on which I am still traveling. Thankfully, I have some wonderful companions and mentors on this extremely rocky road. They are experts from a variety of fire service-related professions—all persons of great ethics and integrity—who have banded with me in my journey to find the truth. Corbett, throughout this ordeal, has remained constant and steadfast and has guided us through a maze of knowledge about the fire service and governmental regulations that would have been impossible to fathom without him.
TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR?
I didn’t think it was too much to ask for. I just wanted to know why the WTC collapsed, taking more than 2,800 persons with it, including 343 firefighters, 17 of whom were probies, who were not supposed to be killed in the line of duty. I wanted to know why, that’s all. But the system did not want to tell me why. I named my new organization “Parents of Probies.” I joined the two professors in asking for a real investigation of the WTC collapse. After all, when there is one homicide, there is an investigation. There is safeguarding of the crime scene; evidence is collected and tested, and an effort is made to solve the crime. So multiply that by 3,000, and what happens? NOTHING.
Corbett and Jennings were committed in their resolve that a comprehensive investigation should take place. We all agreed that the steel evidence should be safeguarded and tested by scientists to find out why it failed. Instead of doing this, the City of New York entered into a $50 million recycling contract with three scrap yards and almost immediately began to shred the steel and sell it to foreign markets. I wanted to know WHY.
(2) Large debris removal
During this period, the community in which I live, Bronx, New York, provided support and assistance in the form of weekly local newspaper articles, as did several other papers throughout the Bronx. I used these community papers to share my deep concerns, outrage, and questions about why the WTC collapsed, taking so many innocent souls with it. I had been a local community activist for 25 years. One of my mentors gave me emotional support and information that would enable me to contact elected officials in New York and Washington, DC.
I embarked on a letter-writing and phone-calling campaign to the New York elected officials. I sent letter after letter and included reprints of pertinent articles from The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, and other papers, which quoted several concerned experts who were calling for testing of the steel and a more comprehensive investigation. I called their offices and asked for meetings. I got NO RESPONSE.
Corbett gave me the names of other concerned professionals: British WTC documentary maker Phillip Wearne, who was working on World Trade Center: Anatomy of A Collapse; FDNY Deputy Chief (ret.) Vincent Dunn; University of Maryland Professor of Fire Protection Engineering Dr. Jim Quintiere; San Francisco Fire Commissioner (ret.) Andy Casper; and several others. We spoke on the phone for hours; all shared their knowledge and expertise. We were all united in one goal: We wanted the steel saved for examination, and we wanted a comprehensive investigation into why the WTC collapsed. Everyone made calls and wrote letters. What we got was NOTHING.
In October, the families of WTC victims met with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, city officials, and fire department members. Tempers seethed at this meeting because of the gravity of the situation and the contradictory nature of the information being provided to the grieving and shocked relatives. I brought with me to the meeting a large sign asking for a federal investigation of the WTC collapse. I also brought dozens of petitions for people to sign. No elected official or NYC representative uttered a word about an investigation, but nearly 200 signed my petitions. I spoke to the officials and was placated—the usual man to woman yes, yes, yessing. I appealed to the city officials to stop destroying the only evidence we had of the crime—the steel from the WTC. They didn’t listen. Continuous discussions with Corbett and others led to the conviction that the only way to find out why the WTC collapsed was to have a federal investigation. To that end, I resumed my program of calling, writing, and sending copies of my petitions and various articles to a host of public officials. STILL NOTHING.
I realized that the endless writing, calling, and other efforts were getting no results. So I hired a publicist for $2,500; he arranged a press conference in front of City Hall and renamed my fledgling organization so that it would have a broader base. Corbett, Dunn, and a small group of firefighters’ parents and relatives joined with me as I told the world that we were calling for a comprehensive, federal investigation of the collapse of the WTC. Thus the Skyscraper Safety Campaign (SSC) was born on December 14, 2001. Our first big break was a feature story in the New York Daily News by investigative reporter Joe Calderone. The story, “Families Seek Probe into Why Towers Fell,” raised the awareness of some members of the public. I continued with my calling, writing, and faxing—still to no avail, but I was beginning to raise awareness.
Concerned professionals aligned with the SSC grew more and more alarmed at the destruction of the steel evidence, yet the wall of silence by public officials still stood. In desperation, I turned to the legal profession. I inquired about getting an injunction to stop NYC from destroying the rest of the steel evidence. When I learned that an attorney would charge $25,000 to file the injunction, I realized I was barking up the wrong tree.
So I, and others, continued our calls, letters, and faxes. Then I started sending overnight mail to elected officials, including Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). I included materials about the organization and the professionals who were supporting the call to halt the destruction of all the steel evidence from the WTC.
I sent it out in early December, and then I waited. After a week went by, I called FEMA about the overnight package. I was told the package was not received; they were absolutely sure, because they checked the logbook. When I called the next day with the tracking number and the name of the person who signed for it, another extensive check was made. They “found” the package in the desk of someone who had gone away on vacation! It was implied that this was my fault, because I wrote “Personal & Confidential” on the envelope! Go figure.
I was told that FEMA cannot do an investigation because it is not an investigatory agency. Nevertheless, in one of the many bizarre moves in this dysfunctional saga, FEMA teamed up with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) to conduct a “Building Performance Review Study,” instead of an investigation of why 3,000 people were essentially killed by two buildings!
So, here we had two organizations that had no investigatory or subpoena powers doing a Building Performance Review Study (BPAT) that was masquerading as an investigation, with little to no cooperation from anyone connected with the WTC. And the death of nearly 3,000—including 343 firefighters who did not die from a fire but by a building—remained uninvestigated!
The frustration of these months was unbelievable. If it weren’t for Corbett and other fire service-related professionals who guided and informed us about all aspects of the WTC collapse, I could never have continued to make progress. During these months, hardly a day went by that I was not consulting with Corbett or one of the other professionals with whom he put me in contact.
THE CHANCE OF A LIFETIME
In January, Jennie Farrell, the cofounder of “Give Your Voice,” the largest civilian victims group post-9-11, offered me the opportunity to go to the White House. President Bush was signing the “Income Tax Relief Bill.” I thought this would be a great opportunity to make my plea for a federal investigation of the WTC collapse. Knowing that many big shots would be there, I planned my strategy. Many of the techniques I devised through this long and arduous battle were inspired by my son and the USMC.
I planned to have several letters ready to hand to a variety of public officials about the need for a federal investigation of the WTC collapse. I also came armed with photos of my son. On one side was the heart-wrenching probie photo that my son disliked so much (not macho) and that the public would come to know so well. The other side showed an angelic-faced, looking somewhat “beaten up,” 19-year-old Marine recruit in his dress blues. I was ready to spring into action. Just after the signing, I made a beeline for President Bush. I showed him the probie photo and then flipped to the USMC photo. His face lit up! “Ah, he was a Marine!” said Bush. “You know, we like Marines down here.” As he put his arm around me, I put my letter in his hand and begged him to support a federal investigation of the WTC collapse. I never found out for sure, but I think that day was a pivotal one for the SSC.
Shortly after this time, I met a woman who, like me, was crying out for answers. Her husband worked on the 103rd floor of the South Tower. He was last seen, injured but alive, on the 78th floor, waiting to be rescued. She sought me out, and the rest was history. Monica Gabrielle, as co-chair, soon became an invaluable part of the SSC.
Corbett had told me which members of Congress were regarded as being interested in firefighters. He told me that Congressman Sherwood Boehlert from upstate New York was a great friend of the fire service. We reached out to him and asked that he help us find out why the WTC collapsed and to protect firefighters in the future.
On March 6, 2002, the House of Representatives Science Committee held the first of two congressional hearings into the WTC collapse. Chaired by Congressman Boehlert, a kind, compassionate and intelligent man, the hearings were an eye opener! I led a delegation of parents, widows, and other concerned persons to Washington. We brought photos of our lost loved ones. Photos in newspapers showed the grief in our hearts and the determination of our wills to find out the truth about the WTC collapse. Corbett was a main witness; he gave testimony outlining why we needed a federal investigation.
THE TRUTH HURTS
What we found out was not pretty. The hearings revealed that the aftermath of the WTC collapse was characterized by disorganization, confusion, and a lack of definition of the line of authority for federal, state, and local governments, and that this hampered any semblance of an investigation. What a disgrace! Much disturbing information was revealed, and there were many butt-covering attempts. But, one thing was clear: The aftermath of the WTC was bungled to such a degree that reform was called for immediately. One of the most disturbing revelations was that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA), the agency that had built those towers of doom, would not cooperate with the federal government (FEMA) or the ASCE until the agencies signed confidentiality agreements stating that they would never reveal anything they found or testify against them in a court of law. They also refused to hand over their blueprints of the WTC for a full four months! An agency of the U.S. government was essentially held hostage, and the government capitulated! What a disgrace! During this and the subsequent May 6 hearings, we learned some of the awful truths about the WTC collapse. Mainly, we learned about the total inadequacy of the BPAT study. We demanded more!
Thank God for Congressman Boehlert. He proposed that NIST engage in a comprehensive two-year study of all the aspects of the WTC collapse and wrote the groundbreaking new National Construction Safety Team Act, which will set a standard for response to catastrophic building collapse and other such events in this country. It will also contain the much-needed subpoena power for the upcoming WTC investigation.
During the following months, other members of the SSC and I continued to bang on the doors of our elected officials, again to little avail. I interrupted a news conference of Senator Hillary Clinton to appeal to her, on behalf of the families of the 343 firefighters, for support of a federal investigation of the WTC collapse.
Thanks to Fire Engineering magazine, Monica Gabrielle and I were able to travel cross-country and address the 2002 Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis and FDIC West in Sacramento. Before doing that, I had had an extreme fear of flying, but I had to overcome my fear and once again act like a Marine in my son’s memory.
One year after 9-11, much work still remains to be done. We must reform our building codes throughout this country. We must reform code groups who write the laws. At least 50 percent of members of all codes groups should be fire service professionals. We must get the fire service to advocate for itself.
The unions, fraternal organizations, and national and international associations have all failed the fire service in this regard. My son and the other 342 firefighters in NYC were betrayed by a system they were sworn to uphold. They were betrayed by a system that allows builders and developers to write codes and lets economic interests, instead of human safety concerns, dictate. They were betrayed by a system that allows these people to construct buildings of any height and any size and then permits them to walk away from these buildings without any responsibility, with their leaving it up to the fire service to figure out how to save the lives of the occupants—and their own lives—at the same time.
Many people do not realize that the WTC was constructed with total immunity to building and fire codes! The PA, under a bizarre law that must be changed, had total immunity to all codes and adheres to “its own codes.” This would be like the New York Police Department’s throwing out the U.S. Constitution and deciding to adhere to “its own laws.” This must end forever! No building in this country should ever again be built without conformance to local codes, period!
To that end, Monica Gabrielle, the SSC, and I continue to work every day to change the dysfunctional system in New York and to safeguard the lives of firefighters everywhere. But we cannot do it alone. All firefighters must take the responsibility for safeguarding their own lives. You must take things into your own hands. You must find out who your elected officials are. You must call, write, and visit your elected officials to discuss what reforms are needed. You must insist that your unions represent your needs in this way. Insist on your union’s having more tangible representation at public meetings. You should make your needs clear by writing letters to the editor and public opinion pieces in newspapers relative to matters that affect the safety and security of the fire service. Your unions must tell the elected officials what they must do to ensure this. Remember: Every year is an election year to politicians. Do not let them sit on their butts while the system is allowed to play a role in killing you.
The firefighters of NYC need a salary increase, but they need a lot more than just money. A bigger paycheck will not keep them alive. They need reform of building codes and elimination of PA immunities to building codes. They need increased funding for technology and training; revision of their antiquated methods; and, most importantly, to be part of a unified command structure that will protect them from massacres such as the massacre of 9-11. A fire did not kill my son and the 342 other firefighters on 9-11; a building did. Tell your representatives in Congress that you want them to actively support the National Institute of Standards and Technology federal investigation of the WTC collapse. Insist that they represent your interests in this investigation. Your senators also need to support The National Construction Safety Team Act and the much-needed subpoena power so we can find out precisely why the WTC collapsed.
Let this be the legacy of the 343 brothers who died in New York City on 9-11—that all in the fire service will take on the responsibility of making all buildings safe for firefighters and all American people. Do not let their deaths have been in vain. You can make the difference between life and death in the future.
“Steel really has no memory,” Once you melt down steel from the World Trade Center, it could end up in a soup can or the fender of a car—anywhere, really.”—Bill Heenan, president of the Steel Recycling Institute in Pittsburgh, “WTC steel’s being put to work again,” New York Daily News, Jan. 17, 2002
Before the end of the year, most of the steel from the twin towers will have been recycled. As of yesterday, 157,759 tons of the steel had been hauled out of Ground Zero.—“WTC steel’s being put to work again,” New York Daily News, Jan. 17, 2002
SALLY REGENHARD lost her 28-year-old son Christian Michael Otto Regenhard, a probie in the Fire Department of New York, in the World Trade Center collapses. She is the founder of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, a coalition of families of WTC victims and professionals dedicated to making government officials aware of the need for improved codes to ensure the safety of those who live and work in high-rise buildings.