In N.Y., 'widows' groups gaining political influence


NEW YORK - A new political group has emerged from the cinders and ash of the World Trade Center disaster site. It is a group that no city official wants to offend, one whose broad powers are only beginning to be realized by its members. In the verbal shorthand of these troubled days, it is known simply as "the widows."

The name is imprecise; those who lost relatives in the terrorist attack of Sept. 11 include thousands of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers.

But that is what they are called, in part because their movement is driven by the widows of many of the 343 firefighters killed that day in the line of duty.

Since uniting their voices this month to protest the city's handling of the disaster site - which they consider to be a burial ground - the grieving family members have helped to win certain concessions from the Giuliani administration.

It reversed a cutback in the number of firefighters at the site and dropped criminal charges against all but one of the 18 off-duty firefighters who recently scuffled with on-duty police officers.

In deference to some widows, the administration also ordered that no Thanksgiving Day break be taken in the search for bodies.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is famously intolerant of people who criticize or interrupt him at public meetings.

But two weeks ago, on the same day that he also dealt with an airplane crash in the Rockaways that killed 265 people, the mayor and his staff "just sat there and took it" at a contentious, emotionally charged meeting with relatives of World Trade Center victims, one city official said.

More than anything else, the family members want a dignified, almost reverent approach to the clearing of the 16-acre site.

No one, they stress, should forget for a moment that the remains of hundreds, perhaps thousands, could be mixed in with the debris.

And so, they say, every heaping bucket, every loaded shovel, should be examined for anything that might give a grieving family something to bury properly.

But the widows and family members also say that their demands extend well into the future; for example, they want a voice in how the property is developed.

"This could be a final resting place for a lot of our loved ones," said Marian Fontana, widow of a firefighter and president of a new group called the 9-11 Widows' and Victims' Families Association.

"We feel very strongly that we should be part of the decision-making in what is going to happen at the site after they're done with the retrieval," she said.

The reality of what the disaster site is - a still-smoking field of misery, where body parts and human dust are intermingled with concrete and steel - played a central role in the creation of the widows groups.

Their mission began early this month when City Hall and the Fire Department announced that, for safety reasons, they were reducing the number of firefighters assigned to monitor the debris-removal operation for signs of human remains.

The announcement tapped into the anger that had been building since the World Trade Center collapse.

Most of all, family members, firefighters and officials from the two firefighters' unions complained that the city had forgotten a cardinal rule in the firefighter's code. "You don't leave a fire scene until every brother and civilian is found," said Fontana, whose firefighter husband, David, is missing.

Senior fire officials acknowledge that there are some things that they might have done better, but they emphasized that they have a small administrative staff that is accustomed to handling a half-dozen on-duty deaths of firefighters a year, not 343.

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