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Wake-Up Call The Political Education of a 9/11 Widow Kristen Breitweiser Warner Books: 304 pp., $24.99

September 10, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

"HERE is how I like to boil it down," writes Kristen Breitweiser, "if you are unwilling to make sacrifices in your own life so that we as a nation can cut our dependence on foreign oil, then which one of your loved ones are you willing to lose to the terrorists?" This sounds extreme until you read Breitweiser's terrifying account of the day she lost her husband, Ron, to terrorists. Ron worked for Fiduciary Trust International, in the south tower (the second to be hit) of the World Trade Center. He said goodbye to his wife, his 2-year-old daughter, Caroline, and his dog, Sam, and arrived at work at 7 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. At 8:30 a.m. he called to say hello, then called again at 8:51, after the north tower had been hit, to say he was OK. At 9:03, Breitweiser watched the second plane hit her husband's building. "I couldn't feel my legs," she remembers. She called her husband's phone but got no answer. "Please come home, Sweets, just come home," she cried into the phone.

Breitweiser derived some solace by writing letters to Caroline describing her father. She dived into action, trying to sort through the events that led to her husband's death: "We knew what our pain was," she writes of her fellow 9/11 widows. "But the facts that lay behind our husbands' murders were ... not so understandable, definable, or explainable. We didn't know why our nation had been so vulnerable on the morning of the attacks. Why jets were not scrambled on time to intercept the four hijacked airliners." These and many other questions tormented Breitweiser, who, in the face of political opposition, led the charge to create an independent commission to answer the questions raised by the relatives of the 9/11 victims. "We didn't want empathy," she writes. "We wanted action."

In 2002, she and three other widows testified at a joint inquiry of Congress. "I don't really know what happened to him," she told the committee. "I don't know whether he jumped or he choked to death on smoke. I don't know whether he sat curled up in a corner watching the carpet melt in front of him, knowing that his own death was soon to come, or if he was alive long enough to be crushed by the buildings when they ultimately collapsed. These are the images that haunt me at night when I put my head to rest on his pillow."

In the course of her research, Breitweiser was convinced that "the CIA deliberately withheld information from the FBI about two of the terrorists who would go on to become 9/11 hijackers." Both she and her daughter received death threats from right-wing zealots inspired by Rush Limbaugh's attack on Breitweiser's work. "I was labeled a Democratic operative, a rock star of grief, and finally a Democratic attack kitten," she writes. Increasingly, she became disillusioned with the administration her beloved husband had supported. The speeches at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City "seemed filled with anger and venom," she writes, anxious for her daughter's future. "I didn't want to hand her a war for the next one hundred years. That wasn't my job as a mom. My job was to provide her with a safe and happy future, not a war-torn one. I also knew that the war in Iraq was making us all incredibly less safe than we were on September 12, 2001." Breitweiser decided to endorse John Kerry. "When I lived inside my bubble," she writes of her comfortable upper-middle-class Republican life, "I was naive. I didn't think I had to worry about my government. Foolishly, I assumed my government was doing its job in keeping us safe and protected."

In January 2005, some of Ron's body parts were identified, including an arm and hand. In a way, this was the last straw for Breitweiser: "I no longer trust President Bush or Congress to look out for my best interests.... The death of Ron woke me up to that fact -- that something is terribly wrong with our country's leadership. Spending the past five years in Washington lobbying for change has seared this frightening truth into my DNA."

"Wake-Up Call" is a straightforward, intensely moving account of personal loss. It's also an account of another kind of loss: that of faith in our government. It's a brave book, full of integrity and love -- and hope, too, for the future of a country with such citizens.

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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