Presidential Politics Roil Observance of Sept. 11

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007

NEW YORK -- Few things united this wildly diverse city more than the devastating events of Sept. 11, 2001. But, as the sixth anniversary of that dark day approaches, that sense of unity is being seriously tested amid a cacophony of controversies that has left some New Yorkers sniping at each other like family members at a funeral.

Perhaps the biggest target: former mayor and Republican presidential hopeful Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose planned appearance near Ground Zero on Tuesday to deliver a short reading is being assailed by critics. His decision to speak while running a presidential campaign sparked a scathing New York Times editorial and infuriated a smattering of family members of victims and firefighter groups, particularly those who have long blamed Giuliani for not doing enough to upgrade emergency equipment before the attacks. Those critics, in turn, are being assailed by Giuliani supporters for suggesting that he would use such a reverent moment for a vote-grabbing publicity stunt.

It happens at a time when New York -- the city most directly affected by the 9/11 attacks -- is experiencing an echo of the horror of that day. Last month, two firefighters were killed while fighting a mega-inferno inside a condemned building that was damaged in the twin towers' collapse. That the blaze -- apparently caused by a cigarette smoker -- claimed two more of New York's first responders so close to the emotional anniversary has reopened wounds here and set tempers raging.

Local, state and federal officials -- along with the contractors hired to dismantle the building -- are bearing the brunt of public wrath for allowing the damaged structure to stand for so long as a safety hazard. Three fire department officials have been suspended while the state and the Manhattan district attorney's office launch investigations. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) -- also widely discussed as a possible presidential candidate, despite his repeated denials -- has bluntly admitted to "failures" in the fire department's handling of the site.

"We just didn't need this now -- not now," said Jim Riches, a deputy fire chief , who lost his son, also a firefighter, in the North Tower on Sept. 11. "We have two more dead firefighters for no reason. And now we have Giuliani out there grandstanding. This isn't the way to mark this day."

That Sept. 11 has become something of a political football this year is perhaps not surprising, given the ongoing presidential campaign.

Emotions have generally run high in New York during earlier markings of the attack's anniversary. Yet emotions have run especially high this year among the "9/11 community": victims' family members, volunteers and first responders personally affected by the attacks. Many have lashed out at recent suggestions in the New York media that some people have Sept. 11 "fatigue" amid the flurry of tributes and exhibitions planned for Tuesday.

"It is the most outrageous suggestion I can imagine," said Lee Ielpi, president of the September 11th Families Association, who lost his son, a firefighter, in the World Trade Center that day. The group helped inaugurate an audio tour this month at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center near Ground Zero. Visitors can rent headphones and walk through the center and the Ground Zero site as they listen to narration by survivors and eyewitnesses of the attacks.

"Fatigue?" Ielpi said. "What, are we supposed to forget that day? No, that is unacceptable."

Family members also butted heads with Bloomberg over the city's decision to move this year's tribute from the World Trade Center site to a nearby park because the Freedom Tower project is under construction. After a meeting with family members who have grown accustomed to paying respects in the "pit" -- the cavernous footprint at the base of the World Trade Center -- Bloomberg struck a compromise that allows them to enter the construction site in single file to offer brief remembrances on Tuesday. It will probably be the last time they will be able to do so for years to come.

"Mayor Bloomberg understood our concerns," Riches said. "He listened to us and decided to let us have this moment. Maybe it isn't a full ceremony, but at least we can be there one last time."

But some have been less generous with Giuliani.

Giuliani was invited by Bloomberg to give a brief reading at Tuesday's main tribute event in New York, something he has done for the past five years. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential campaign, is also scheduled to attend but not to speak. Some say Giuliani should do the same to avoid even the hint of politics.

Bloomberg and Giuliani's camp have insisted there will be nothing political about the moment. "He'll be there just as he has before; he's not doing anything different," said Anthony V. Carbonetti, a senior Giuliani adviser. Asked about the criticism, Carbonetti said Giuliani "is not even going to respond to that."

Adding to the tension are the deaths on Aug. 18 of the two firefighters in the Deutsche Bank Building, dubbed the "toxic tower" because of its poisonous cocktail of asbestos, dioxin and other materials blown in by the dust of Sept. 11. Investigators have concluded that part of the standpipe used for pumping water throughout the building had been removed during complicated demolition preparations. It left the two firefighters -- Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph Graffagnino, 33 -- stranded without water until they ultimately ran out of air as the fire blazed.

Bloomberg has said that the fire department was responsible for serious lapses -- including not conducting required inspections and failing to draw up specific plans for battling a fire there despite internal recommendations that it do so.

Speaking about the two deaths, Bloomberg recently told reporters that firefighters operate in a risky line of work, but that the city had "an obligation to them to reduce those risks wherever possible. As a city, we failed to do that."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company