Many Of Ground Zero's Past Visitors Have Other Plans


Posted by Bob Braun September 11, 2008 12:07AM

For many surviving relatives of 9/11 victims, Ground Zero is no longer the place to find a link to the lost.

This year, with both presidential candidates planning to appear today, the sense of disconnect is even greater.

"We don't want to be there with the crowds and the politicians," says Don Robertson of South Orange. He and his wife, Marcee, lost their son, Donald Jr.

"We are really set against having McCain and Obama there. Even if they don't say a word, it's still political. They'll be seen."

Time was the Robertsons and other families, especially those who never recovered remains, were drawn to Ground Zero because it was the last place the people they loved were alive -- and because the site was the closest they had to a memorial park.

"I will always come here," says Marina Arevalo, the mother of victim Kenneth Lira of Paterson. She says she comes whenever she can, not just on anniversaries.

But others find their connection in other places and in other ways. The Robertsons, for example, will attend a ceremony at Essex County's 9/11 Memorial at the top of the Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange, overlooking the city skyline.

"They are our friends and neighbors," says Robertson.

Sandy Grazioso of Clifton lost two sons, John and Timothy, to the 9/11 hijackers. She went to Ground Zero for the first three anniversaries.

"But it's really not something I want to do anymore," says the retired paralegal.

Now, for most of the day on 9/11 she teaches history classes at Passaic County Tech Wayne. She tells students what happened -- to her, to her family, to everyone.

"I know it sounds odd, but 9/11 is history now. It's in my grandchildren's history textbooks, and these kids want to know about it, how it affected people personally."

It gives her a chance to talk about her sons, and more. She is the mother-in-law of John Azzarello, who was counsel to the 9/11 commission. Her daughter, Carolee, testified about the loss of her brothers in the federal trial of Zacharias Moussaoui, who was the only person convicted in the 9/11 conspiracy.

"The children invigorate me," says Grazioso.

After class, her daughter will host a "celebration of the lives of John and Tim."

Kurt and Diane Horning of Scotch Plains also will stay away from Ground Zero today. They are not pleased the presidential candidates will show up.

"It shifts the whole focus of the ceremony," says Kurt. "People will be there not out of respect for the victims, but because they want to see the next president."

He also says the presence of the candidates will lead to tighter security, putting more distance between the families and others might want to come to Ground Zero for the right reasons.

John McCain and Barack Obama will participate tonight at an invitation-only meeting at Columbia University. The Hornings were invited as leaders of an organization trying -- so far, unsuccessfully -- to have the ashen remains of victims transferred from the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island to a memorial, either at Ground Zero or elsewhere.

"We'll be there because we're hoping to talk to the candidates," says Kurt Horning, whose son Matthew was killed.

Bob McIlvaine, whose son and namesake, a Princeton graduate, was a victim, will come to New York today from his home in Oreland, Pa., to meet with his son's friends. But he doubts he will go to Ground Zero -- at least not while the candidates are there.

"Neither gives a damn about finding out what really happened," he says. He has devoted his life since his son's death to pursuing a more thorough investigation.

"There are just too many unanswered questions," says McIlvaine, who is featured in an Italian film, "Zero: An Investigation into 9/11," that casts doubt on official versions but has received little play in the United States."

Once among the most active of family members, the so-called Jersey Girls also will not be at Ground Zero today. They pushed for the creation of the 9/11 commission. One is Lorie Van Auken of East Brunswick, whose husband, Kenneth, was killed.

"This will be a very private day for us," says Van Auken, an artist who has two children. Although she campaigned for John Kerry in 2004, she says she and the other four widows who make up the Sept. 11 Advocates are not active in the 2008 campaign.

Some, she says, are monitoring the military commission trials of alleged terrorists at Guantanamo.

Van Auken says she is indifferent to the candidates' appearance at Ground Zero, but dismisses the contention -- by both --that their decision to attend was "apolitical."

"Sorry, but it looks like a political decision to me."