Published on Thursday, September 12, 2002 by Inter Press Service
Relatives of Sep 11 Victims Reject More Violence
by Katherine Stapp
NEW YORK, Sep 11 - When U.S. President George W. Bush addressed the nation from New York's historic Ellis Island on Wednesday, dozens of families who lost loved ones last Sep. 11 tuned out.
They are holding their own vigil to honor the dead - and to denounce the administration's ”war on terror”.
”My brother Jim died on the 95th floor of the North Tower,” said David Potorti, a member of 'September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows'. ”This is a really emotional time.”
But Potorti, and about 40 other relatives of those killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, strongly believe that U.S. military action - in Afghanistan, the Philippines, and imminently against Iraq - will only cause greater suffering.
”Sep. 11 must not continue to be used to promote more war and violence,” said Colleen Kelly, whose brother William perished at the World Trade Center that day one year ago.
The group is now on a national speaking tour in hopes that their coming forward will inspire Americans to question the Bush administration's response to the catastrophe. Their name is taken from a quote by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he says ”wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows”.
When September 11 Families formed in the weeks following the attacks, and publicly condemned the invasion of Afghanistan, ”there was tremendous fear and anger”, Potorti said. ”Speaking out at that time was a very brave act.”
While the administration has not altered its initial stance of ”with us or against us”, Potorti said his group has found a groundswell of support here and abroad.
”Thousands of Americans are deeply concerned about where our country is heading,” he said.
Rangina Hamidi, an Afghan-American touring with September 11 Families, pointed out that the vast majority of events to commemorate the attacks ignore the civilian casualties incurred during the ouster of the repressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
”We are also approaching the anniversary of the bombing of Afghanistan, in which thousands of people lost their lives, probably at least 10,000, although we will never know exactly how many,” she said.
September 11 Families is pressuring Bush to create a 20-million-dollar fund to aid Afghan families who lost members in the war. So far, the president has refused to meet with them. On their own, they have collected and distributed 7,000 dollars.
They say they have also found some measure of solace.
For others, especially those injured in the attacks, just getting through the day is an achievement.
Gary Smiley, a veteran paramedic from Brooklyn, lay pinned under the smoking ruins of the South Tower for at least two hours before an unknown fireman dug him out. He was certain he would die.
Smiley lost 27 friends and colleagues that day. Two fire chiefs were killed within inches of him. He managed to carry out several people before being buried in a blizzard of debris.
When Smiley got out of the hospital, he immediately went back to ground zero and delved into the hellish task of sifting through the rubble in search of survivors, then bodies. He found many, maybe some of them people he knew.. Paradoxically, it was the only place he felt safe.
A year later, he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The city is giving him a prestigious ”rescue survivor” ribbon next month, but it means little, he says.
”I'm not reconciled at all with what happened,” said Smiley, who has continued to work as a paramedic. ”They keep telling us to just get over it. Well, I can't get over it. My greatest fear is that after it's all said and done, they'll forget about us.”
He feels left out of the vast web of relief efforts, most of which are directed at relatives rather than rescue workers who were on the scene.
”The biggest problem is that there's nothing for the survivors,” he said. ”The firemen have the firehouse to go to. But we've been getting the run-around from almost every group.”
Timothy Cusack, also a long-time New York City paramedic, agreed that emergency medical technicians and paramedics have been sidelined. This may be due to the cold arithmetic of attrition - 343 fire-fighters, 23 police officers and eight emergency medical services workers perished at the World Trade Center
Still, ”everybody's bitter about it,” he said. ”It's not like it's a year later and the city is remembering what we did. Morale is at rock bottom.”
What will be done with the site - now a raw hole in the ground - is uncertain. The city just rejected six proposals for rebuilding due to overwhelming public antipathy, and reopened bidding to U.S. and international architectural firms.
As the anniversary looms, average New Yorkers - those who neither lost someone nor were at the towers - are marking the date in different ways.
Stephanie, a high school teacher in Brooklyn, said her school had nothing formal planned for Sep. 11.
”Different teachers are doing what's right for them,” she said. ”We don't want to traumatize the kids by talking about it every single period. I'll probably have my kids write an essay.”
”The main thing I learned is that what I believe is not always right,” said Stephanie, who did not want her last name used. ”When (former New York mayor) Rudy Giuliani - who I loathe - came on television, I said, 'thank God, this megalomaniacal demagogue will protect us'.”
Stephanie was lucky. Her brother was at the World Trade Center on the morning of Sep. 11, and describes it as one of the worst days of his life. He says he will never forget watching scores of people jump from the burning South Tower.
”First it was one at a time, then two, some holding hands, then four, then six, then one and two again,” he recounted. ”Men and women were weeping, holding each other up as the emotional pain was too much for many of us. They would not stop coming out of that building. I stopped counting the jumpers at 30, it became too painful.”
It was then, he said, that the rest of the South Tower ”sheared off and came down”.
For the September 11 Families, the events of that day are ”something from which we will never recover, not in one year, not in a lifetime”.
But ”responding to violence with violence only escalates the suffering, creating fresh wounds and breeding more resentment”, Potorti said.
Copyright 2002 IPS