Two years later, families need more answers

By Monica Iken

It’s been nearly two years since my husband Michael Iken and thousands of others were murdered in an evil act of terror on Sept. 11, 2001. Like other family members, the pain is still palpable. I miss Michael terribly.

I still have no remains to bury and likely never will. Last year at this time, I was still hopeful. Today, the grim reality is beginning to sink in. Rather than being angry about it, ironically, there is some comfort because of the extraordinary efforts of one man — Bob Shaler, New York’s chief forensic biologist, who leads the victim identification effort.

As the memorial and redevelopment efforts at the former World Trade Center site move forward, government officials could learn a lot about how to work with the victims’ families simply by following Bob Shaler and his very capable team’s example.

Mr. Shaler holds monthly meetings with the families whether he has new information to share or not.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation stopped having regular meetings with the Family Advisory Council earlier this year. They only hold meetings when members specifically request it in response to what we read in the newspapers or in press releases.

Mr. Shaler does a great job of managing expectations. We might not always like hearing what he has to say, but his honest and forthright approach is appreciated. He doesn’t say trust us. He provides facts and information on a timely basis that engender trust and faith in his efforts.

The L.M.D.C. and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are unfortunately not doing a good job of managing expectations. Information is parceled out on a need to know basis, we lack an understanding of the big picture and timeline of decisions, or the reasoning behind those decisions. We ask questions, and many times we never get answers. Not because answers don’t exist, but because some bureaucrat has decided that it is not in their best interests to share or doesn’t know how to explain it in layman’s terms.

One example is a question I’ve been asking for over a year. How many people are projected to visit the memorial and how will they be accommodated on the site?

A study was done last fall that was never shared with the public that projected the number at 9-12 million and growing over time. An opinion was then solicited by another consultant in January that pegged the number at 5.5 million and holding. The lesser number was then used as the basis for determining how much space to allocate for the memorial.

I’m now under the impression that the L.M.D.C. may conduct a third study as part of the environmental impact statement, but no one has ever explained what was wrong with the first study.

And despite seven months of Freedom of Information Act requests, the Port Authority has yet to share a complete copy of either study. These studies will show whether or not the amount of land set aside for the memorial was based on sound planning assumptions or arbitrary desires. If the government stands behind its assumptions, why are they reluctant to provide supporting facts?

This approach by government officials makes it very difficult for families to trust the process or its outcomes. It explains why some of the family groups unfortunately feel the need to hold protests. Government officials say we need to move forward. Many of us agree, but lack the information to do it.

Many of the families feel betrayed because promises have been made to preserve the footprints where the Twin Towers once stood. The families took this promise very literally to mean from bedrock to infinity, even if that’s not what officials meant. The majority of victim’s remains were found in the footprint and bathtub areas, so these spaces are especially sacred to us.

Many families do not understand that a combination of engineering and practical realities might impact that interpretation. The L.M.D.C. and P.A. have failed to communicate what those realities might be and how they have attempted to best mitigate them to remain as true to the promise as possible.

Governor Pataki has thankfully continued to be a strong advocate for the victims’ families. The L.M.D.C. is also making progress in improving communications but only time will tell how that will work.

The memorial at ground zero will be a reflection of what America values most. If the process of creating it doesn’t include truth, there will be no justice for the first casualties of the war on terrorism.

Monica Iken, Founder of September’s Mission, lost her husband Michael, a bond broker, on the 84th Floor of Tower Two.