Middletown: Seeking Relief From Action

How Two Women Cope With Their Grief

Kristen Breitweiser could summarize her life in Middletown in one word: Perfect.

She had a perfect house in the woods, a perfect 2–year-old daughter and a perfect marriage to her husband Ron, who was a money manager at Fiduciary Trust. That perfect picture was shattered on Sept. 11.

When the plane hit the first tower, Ron called Kristen. She remembers, "And he said, 'Listen,' he goes, 'You know we're staying. I'm going to watch it on TV. I'll call you back.' And I said, 'Just be careful.' He's like, 'I love you. I just didn't want you to worry.'"

Then Kristen turned on TV, too, and watched herself become a widow when the second tower fell. In the months since, she has gone through shock, sadness, and anger. Now, she's channeling her grief into action.

"It's easier to focus on something that you think you can change and you think you can fix when you've just lost something," she explains. "It's, you know, a lot better to do that than to sit home and cry."

Instead of organizing car pools and arranging play dates, this New Jersey housewife is lobbying congressmen on behalf of a group called the Sept. 11 Advocates. The group wants an independent commission to investigate the disaster.

"Our husbands were killed," Kristen says. "They were murdered. We deserve to have answers."

Among the questions she seeks to have answered: Why weren't last summer's threats against airplanes publicized? Why did officials tell people in Tower Two to stay in their offices after the first plane hit? Why didn't the American military respond?

"We must ask the tough questions. And seek out the difficult answers," she says. "And be made stronger and safer by the bitter lessons learned on Sept. 11. Our loved ones must not have died in vain."

Although President Bush has said he opposes an independent commission, legislation to establish one has passed in the House and will be taken up in the Senate in September.

Like Kristen, Edie Lutnick also found comfort in action.

A former lawyer, she is the sister of Howard Lutnick, CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, the firm that lost the most employees that day. Their brother Gary, who survived the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, was among the dead.

"Gary called me," she recalls. "And my first reaction was to say, similar to 1993, you know, 'Oh Gary, thank God you're not there.' And he said, 'But, Edie, I am here.'"

Since his death, she's abandoned her law career to manage the Cantor Fitzgerald relief fund, set up to support the families of 658 victims, 19 of them from Middletown.

The Lutnicks didn't look very sympathetic at first. Howard was vilified when he stopped victims' paychecks just days after the tragedy.

"If you go back to those families now, and you ask them how they feel about what Cantor Fitzgerald has done," Edie says, "I think that you will unanimously find that they are very, very grateful."

In addition to covering medical benefits for a decade, Cantor Fitzgerald has promised to put 25 percent of its profits into the relief fund for five years. But with so much need, even millions don't go very far.

Last winter, Edie got an inspiration - a high society auction to raise more money. On June 3, a crowded auction at Sotheby's raised more than $4 million dollars. It was enough for every family to receive a check, as always personally signed by Edie.

"Knowing that you're doing something really, really good makes it worthwhile," she says, "but knowing what all these people lost makes it excruciating."

For Kristen Breitweiser and Edie Lutnick and other survivors, the small victories help fill the void, if only just a little.

Kristen explains: "It's not going to bring my husband back, but you know what? It's gonna be removing the problems in the system to make sure that it never happens again."