Giuliani chastised by families of Sept. 11 victims, praised by commissioners

by Michael Weissenstein
San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Link to Original

Outraged relatives of World Trade Center victims heckled former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on Wednesday as their hopes that he would be grilled by the Sept. 11 commission faded in the face of gentle questioning and effusive praise from panel members.

“My son was murdered because of your incompetence!” shouted Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son died in the trade center. Seated three rows behind Giuliani, she jabbed her finger at the former mayor and waved a sign that read “Fiction” as he gave the city’s emergency response a glowing review.

Giuliani finished his testimony and abruptly left the auditorium minutes later, upsetting family members who said they received few answers. Monica Gabrielle, who lost her husband, Richard, called it a “lost opportunity.”

“This was not a time for Rudy Giuliani to talk about all the great things he did on 9/11,” she said. “He can save that for his talking tours. He should have told us what went wrong and what we should do now.”

The acrimonious hearing brought together the mayor, who became a symbol of heroism for his steady response to the attack, and the activist relatives who have become a voice of dissent over his administration’s emergency planning and response.

Their complaints have been supported by a growing mass of critical findings on gaps in command, control and communications among New York’s agencies in charge of emergency response.

The anger directed at Giuliani came on the second and final day of hearings in New York by the Sept. 11 commission, created by Congress last year to investigate the attacks and advise the country on ways to avoid future attacks. The hearings resume in Washington on June 8-9 and the final report is due July 26.

The commission released two reports that mark the most comprehensive probe to date of New York’s response on Sept 11. The findings detailed a list of failings including poor communication, gulfs in cooperation between police and firefighters and grave deficiencies in the city’s 911 emergency telephone network.

The report led to an aggressive interrogation of Giuliani’s top fire, police and emergency management officials Tuesday, with Republican appointee John F. Lehman, a former Navy secretary under President Reagan, calling the failings “a scandal” and “not worthy of the Boy Scouts.”

Ex-fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen later called Lehman’s comments “outrageous” and “despicable.”

Lehman told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the comments were misunderstood and that he was not trying to criticize those who led the Sept. 11 effort.

“I was on the side of the witnesses, against the system,” he said.

The harsh questioning of Giuliani’s former team was a sharp contrast to the universal praise that commission members heaped on the former mayor Wednesday. His positive assessment of such hotly debated topics as the 911 phone system and gaps in fire and police communications went virtually unchallenged.

“New York City, on that terrible day, in a sense was blessed because it had you as leader,” said commission chairman and former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean. “It had somebody who was a great, great leader to take charge of a terrible, terrible event. You also had, as you’ve told us, some of the best people in the country to call on who worked for you and worked for the city.”

Family members called the Giuliani questioning weak.

“A lot of these questions that the public has may die with this commission,” said Patricia Casazza, whose husband died as the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald filled with smoke.

Giuliani began his testimony Wednesday with a call to focus on the nation’s true enemies and not criticize each other.

“Our enemy is not each other but the terrorists who attacked us, murdered our loved ones and continue to offer a threat to our security, safety and survival,” Giuliani said to applause.

Later, Giuliani was chastised by members of the public. A longtime city gadfly berated him and the commission, yelling, “Three thousand people murdered does not mean leadership!” He and another person were hustled out of the room.

Others in the audience shouted about the failure of Fire Department radios, shouting, “Talk about the radios!”

“You’re simply wasting time at this point,” commission head Thomas Kean told the family members.

“YOU’RE wasting time!” came the angry reply.

Asked afterward about the outbursts, Giuliani said: “I knew that that would happen. … I attribute it to the stress and the trauma that they’re going through.”

Giuliani began his remarks by describing a September morning that began at breakfast with two friends and quickly turned into unimaginable horror as two hijacked planes slammed into the twin towers, killing 2,749 people and rattling the city’s psyche.

As Giuliani recalled watching a man leap from around the 102nd floor of the north tower, family members began to cry, clearly disturbed by the account.

The hearing was held at the New School University in Greenwich Village — about 11/2 miles from ground zero.

Giuliani also told the commission that warnings of a possible terrorist attack on New York contained in an Aug. 6, 2001, White House briefing paper never reached City Hall, but probably would not have changed local security precautions.

The intelligence briefing for President Bush referred to evidence of federal buildings in New York possibly being cased by terrorists. It mentioned New York or the World Trade Center three times.

“If that information had been given to us, or more warnings had been given in the summer of 2001, I can’t honestly tell you we’d do anything differently,” said Giuliani, who has become one of the Bush administration’s most vocal supporters. “We were doing at the time everything we could think of … to protect the city.”

Current Mayor Michael Bloomberg later testified that New York was recently advised by Congress that its homeland security funding for the 2004 budget year would be cut by nearly 50 percent. Thinly populated states such as Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming receive several times more funding per capita than New York, he said.

“This is pork-barrel politics at its worst,” the mayor said. “It also, unfortunately, has the effect of aiding and abetting those who hate us and plot against us.”