9/11 widows shun spotlight as 10th anniversary of attacks approaches The Observer, Sunday 10 July 2011


9/11 widows shun spotlight as 10th anniversary of attacks approaches

The 'Jersey Girls', who fought for a credible inquiry into the attacks of 11 September, have moved on with their lives

Paul Harris in New York
The Observer, Sunday 10 July 2011

Of the many faces and names to emerge after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, few were more evocative to Americans than the "Jersey Girls".

They were four women from New Jersey whose husbands were killed in the tragedy and went on to campaign for a national commission of inquiry into the attacks. In eventually winning their battle to be heard in Washington, the four transformed themselves into powerful representatives of the 9/11 victims. But now, as America gears up for the emotional 10th anniversary of the attacks, the Jersey girls seem to have embraced new lives out of the media spotlight. They will be keeping their grief private.

"I am no longer defining my life as a widow. I feel like I am not going to let myself be defined by what happened to me on 9/11. It's healthier for me. My husband has gone and he's not coming back," Kristen Breitweiser, 40, told the Observer in an interview. Breitweiser said that she would spend the coming anniversary with her 12-year-old daughter. "We will take a nice walk on the beach," she said.

Those sentiments were echoed by fellow Jersey girl Lorie Van Auken, 56, who will spend the day watching her daughter appear in a New York show. "Life goes on," she said.

For a long time, the Jersey girls were among the most outspoken people on the attacks. Each had lost a husband in the most awful circumstances. Van Auken's spouse, Kenneth, was a bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald and called his wife to tell her he loved her after an aircraft hit.

Breitweiser's husband, Ronald, was a senior vice-president for Fiduciary Trust International. Investigators found his wedding ring in the smouldering ruins of the World Trade Centre but not much else. Patty Casazza's husband, John, also worked at Cantor and was just 38 when he died. The final member of the quartet was Mindy Kleinberg, whose spouse, Alan, was another Cantor worker.

The four banded together and, in the face of official intransigence, campaigned with other victims' relatives to set up the 9/11 commission.

They later pressured it to conduct a credible investigation. The four women ended up confronting people such as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger (briefly the first commission chairman) and acting as a sort of watchdog on the process as it probed the event that took the lives of their husbands. Tom Kean, the New Jersey politician put in charge of the commission, once said: "I doubt very much if we would be in existence without them."

Looking back, however, both Breitweiser and Van Auken believe their huge battle to get the commission up and running left too much undone. After fighting so hard to get it set up, they became some of its fiercest critics. Van Auken has spoken of too many questions going unanswered, too many redactions in the final 2004 report and its reluctance to be too critical of senior government figures. That has led some critics to say she flirts with conspiracy theories, but she insists that she just wants the truth. "It is just unanswered questions," she said.

Breitweiser also believes their work to campaign for more openness and better security tactics in defending the US against future terrorism has failed. She fully expects another terror attack on American soil in the future. "I am sure we are going to get another terrorist attack. That will be horrible for the people who will then experience what we did. We did what we did with the commission so as to avoid people ever walking in our shoes again," she said.

Breitweiser said she had lost all faith in America's political system, believing it to be dominated by deep-pocketed business interests who put profit over citizens' safety. Twice in the last few years, she said, people had urged her to stand for office. Twice she refused. "You need money to run and when you get the money you are indebted to the people or corporation that gave you it," she said. Instead, Breitweiser now devotes herself to blogging for the Huffington Post on a wide range of issues.

She has developed a fascination with the Middle East and the Muslim world and recently took her child on a trip to Morocco. A trip to Turkey is planned this year and she wants to go to Egypt next year to witness the aftermath of the country's recent revolution. "There is nothing more inspiring than seeing a group of people rise up together against the powers that be when those powers are in the wrong," she said. "It was also non-violent, and after losing my husband in the way I did, by Middle Eastern terrorists, it was amazing to see change happening without violence."

Van Auken, too, has now developed interests that perhaps one might not expect. She, too, concentrates on her children, but also makes jewellery and has seized on a new campaigning cause: the plight of bees. After taking a course at a local university in New Jersey, Van Auken began keeping her own hives, harvesting honey and then exploring the problems that are causing bees to die out across the world. That has led her right back into campaigning, as many experts believe the bee's problems could be linked to pollution and other human activities. A leaked internal report from the Environmental Protection Agency recently cited the risks of one chemical pesticide to bees and caused outrage.

Now Van Auken is trying to organise beekeepers to campaign for a ban on the product. "I am back in another 'fight the government' thing," Van Auken laughed. But as well as giving her a cause, the bees have also given her peace of mind. "I enjoy the bees. You get to watch the colony and see what they're doing. It fits in with my garden. It is a natural system and it makes me happy," she said.

The Jersey Girls, it seems, may have moved on – but they haven't lost their fighting spirit.

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