Posted by Bob Braun/Star-Ledger Columnist August 09, 2009
The eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is a month away and some survivors of those lost believe it's a good time to renew an investigation into the events of that disastrous day. New York City disagrees.
"We know we never have learned the truth, it's as simple as that,'' says Lorie Van Auken of East Brunswick, one of the most ardent supporters of the creation of the 9/11 commission in 2002. It was headed by former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean.
"Members and staff of the 9/11 commission have said many of the questions raised by the attacks have never been answered.''
Van Auken was a founding member of Sept. 11 Advocates, originally a group of four New Jersey widows whose husbands were killed that day. The group, informally called "the Jersey girls," successfully lobbied for the creation of the commission.
The four women formed the core of a "steering committee" that was loosely attached to the panel, and then became lobbyists for enactment of the commission's recommendations and critics of many of its findings after the panel's report was published almost exactly five years ago.
Van Auken is now affiliated with an organization called NYC-CAN -- New York City Coalition for Accountability Now -- that has spent the last few months collecting signatures on a petition designed to require New York's city council to place the creation of an investigating commission on the November ballot.
The city clerk's office has rejected the petition, challenging thousands of the signatures and, more importantly, the legality of the referendum itself. The dispute already is in court.
NYC-CAN is still pushing for signatures, relying on a provision of the law that allows voters to bypass city council action to place a referendum directly on the ballot.
Visitors to the area around the old World Trade Center site -- now all but inaccessible because of construction -- are likely to encounter supporters of the ballot initiative seeking signatures. Only New York City voters, however, are eligible to sign the petition.
That would exclude Van Auken herself, although, under the terms of the petition, she would be one of the commissioners who would supervise the investigation. The effort has been endorsed by the other "Jersey girls" -- Mindy Kleinberg, also of East Brunswick, and Patty Casazza and Kristen Breitweiser, both of whom have moved out of state.
"We are looking for some way to renew interest in the idea of an investigation,'' says Van Auken.
Another leader of the NYC-CAN effort is Robert McIlvaine, who became a fixture at public hearings of the 9/11 commission, always noticeable in the audience because he wore an orange baseball cap. It was his son Robert's Princeton cap -- the young man had graduated from Princeton in 1997, moved to New York and gotten a job with Merrill Lynch. He was attending a conference at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's a murder -- my son was murdered -- and there never has been a murder investigation and a finding of what happened,'' says McIlvaine, who was laid off from his teaching job at a mental hospital four months after his son's death. He is retired and spends much of his time pushing for a renewed probe into 9/11.
"It's very simple -- I'm a father who lost his son," says McIlvaine, who lives in Oreland, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. He is a member of the executive council of NYC-CAN. "Why wouldn't any father want to know how and why his son died?''
Previous efforts to promote a New York-based investigation into 9/11 have failed. McIlvaine was a leader of a petition drive in 2004 to get former New York attorney general Elliot Spitzer to impanel a special grand jury to look into the day's events.
Efforts like those of NYC-CAN face the danger of becoming overwhelmed by the more radical elements of the so-called "truther" movement, some of whose members already have reached their own conclusions about 9/11 -- including a contention that the destruction of the Twin Towers was not caused by the airplane crashes but rather internal demolition.
The NYC-CAN website -- nyccan.org -- insists any investigation it supervises will not begin with conclusions:
"The investigation will commence from a starting point of zero assumption or bias about the events of September 11. The investigation will be fact-driven and will use only the most rigorous legal standards for establishing the truth about those tragic events.''
Even if the petition succeeds in getting the issue on the ballot, and even if the referendum is adopted, the independent investigation will face daunting problems -- including how to pay for its operations. The 9/11 commission spent $12 million on its investigation; NYC-CAN hopes to raise $50 million privately.
"We do face a lot of problems,'' says Van Auken. "But we really don't have much of a choice.''