Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, has not flown in a plane since that day three years ago. But yesterday, she stood in front of five television cameras and six American flags and said she was going to try to overcome her anxiety -- to fly to campaign for John Kerry.
Breitweiser, who said she voted for President Bush in 2000, and four other Sept. 11 widows endorsed Kerry at a Washington news conference yesterday, saying they had been bitterly disappointed with the war in Iraq and by the way the White House had "stonewalled" attempts to uncover why the country's intelligence services had failed before the terror attacks.
"I am here because I am scared," said Breitweiser, of Middletown, N.J. The nation is not safer today, she contended.
The war with Iraq, said Lorie Van Auken, of East Brunswick, N.J., "has made America more vulnerable to attack, not less," adding, "Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11."
The five widows, and a sixth woman, April Gallop, who narrowly survived the attack on the Pentagon, indicated they would stump and do interviews to support Kerry. Kerry spokeswoman Debra DeShong said they might appear in television ads.
One by one, the widows stepped to the microphone, introduced themselves and offered the brief and grim recitation of what floor their husbands had been on when they perished. Saying it out loud never gets any easier, said Van Auken.
"And we just had an anniversary," she added. "It's an event that will never leave us. It's a wound that will never heal. I have two children, and they're now 17 and 15. It's been three years, and their father," she said, her eyes tearing up, "he wouldn't even know them now."
The attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania, also transformed this particular group of suburban mothers into activists. They pestered Congress and a reluctant White House to establish the bipartisan 9/11 commission, then successfully fought to have national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testify and pushed to gain the panel more time.
But, the women said yesterday, they are dismayed that Bush has not adopted all the panel's recommendations. They repeatedly asked to meet with the president, they said, to no avail. Then they watched the Republican National Convention, where three other Sept. 11 family members took turns at the podium to praise Bush. After that, Breitweiser got on the phone with the others, and they contacted the Kerry campaign. Last Friday in Allentown, Pa., they met with the senator, where he explained to them his position on the Iraq war, said Van Auken, and reiterated his support for implementing all of the 9/11 commission's suggested changes.
"The president has met with many of the family members of those who lost their lives, and he continues to keep them in his thoughts and prayers," White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said yesterday. "This president believes the best way to honor those who have been lost is to win the war on terror, and he is pleased to have the support of many of the families as we move forward."
A spokesman for the Bush campaign initially referred a call for comment on the widows' endorsement to Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.).
In an interview, King said he had been called yesterday by other members of 9/11 families "who are very strong supporters of the president. They felt in the past, not in any conspiracy way, that the media has pretty much latched onto the families who are against the president." A group of five 9/11 relatives issued a statement yesterday endorsing Bush.
"Three years since 9/11, I could never imagine I could be here today disappointed in the man I once supported for president," said Breitweiser. Patty Casazza, of Colts Neck, N.J., also said that she and her late husband had voted for Bush in 2000.
"We agonized" over offering to campaign for Kerry, said Van Auken, who said she is a registered independent who voted for Al Gore in 2000. Asked about their partisanship, Monica Gabrielle, of West Haven, Conn., said, "If President Bush was a Democrat, I'd vote for the other person."