In this Aug. 11, 2011, photograph, Lorie Van Auken poses for The Associated Press in her home in East New Brunswick, N.J. Van Auken, who lost her husband Kenneth Warren Van Auken during the Sept. 11 attacks, became an activist as a result of the tragedy. She is one of four New Jersey widows, known as the Jersey Girls, who pressed the government to do deeper digging into the causes of the attacks. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
by Geoff Mulvihill
Note: This Associated Press report was published on August 23, 2011.
“The Jersey Girls were, in my opinion, the reason the [9/11] commission came into being,” Smith said.
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 turned them into widows and the four Jersey Girls, as they became known, turned themselves into activists.
A decade after the attacks, at least two of them are still trying to make change in public policy. In doing so, they’ve broadened their focus from post-attack truth-finding, the cause that brought them together nearly 10 years ago.
Lorie Van Auken is now a beekeeper who is pressing the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ban a pesticide that some blame for Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been killing honeybees.
Kristen Breitweiser blogs on politics and national security. Though those are issues tied to 9/11, she doesn’t write just about the attacks.
“I think a lot of times when people suffer tragedy or go through something in their own life, they feel compelled to turn it into something better,” Breitweiser said.
Many of the spouses, parents and children of those killed in the terrorist attacks did that.
They set up foundations to honor the best traits of their lost loved ones. They lobbied for tax breaks for the victims, fair deals from the Victims’ Compensation Fund and a burial site at ground zero.
The four stay-at-home moms who lived relatively carefree lives in suburban Monmouth County became some of the most visible faces of the families of the dead and their main cause at the time: pushing the federal government to study the attacks — whether there was intelligence that could have prevented them, and whether the response once they began was adequate. They were subjects of scores of articles, multiple books — including a memoir Breitweiser published in 2006 — and a documentary film, “9/11: Press for Truth.”
The fame and the civic engagement, born of tragedy, came fast.
“I had a very complacent life: we voted, we paid taxes, we volunteered. That was it,” Breitweiser said. “That was the extent of our contribution.”
Two of the Jersey Girls, Patty Casazza and Mindy Kleinberg, did not respond to requests for interviews for this article and have not granted any interviews for the last few years.
All four had husbands working in the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
After 9/11, they united over their mounting frustration that the whole story wasn’t being told.
For more than a year, they parked their children with family and drove to Washington in Breitweiser’s SUV — dubbed the “widowmobile.”
Armed with thick binders of documents, they met with members of Congress and held rallies asking for a full government inquiry. They gave interviews by the score. They recognized that journalists were hungry for stories about the real people affected by the attacks. They could offer that, but they also talked about their policy agenda.
Finally, in November 2002 — 14 months after their husbands and nearly 3,000 other people were killed — President George W. Bush signed the law to create the commission.
One of their champions in Congress was U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey. He said they did their research and came prepared in small ways. They knew he had a sweet tooth and were sure to bring him candy when they stopped by.
“The Jersey Girls were, in my opinion, the reason the commission came into being,” Smith said.
For Breitweiser and Van Auken, the result of the main government inquiry and another on intelligence before the attacks were disappointing, leaving them with many unanswered questions.
For one, a section of a report that appeared to deal with al-Qaeda funding was redacted from one government report.
They’re also not satisfied that the planes involved in the attack could not have been intercepted after the first one crashed into the World Trade Center.
“You want to say the first attack was a surprise? OK, the first attack was a surprise,” Van Auken said. “If we have a group of people that are in charge of our defense and they can’t manage to intercept an airplane for two hours?”
Breitweiser, a former Republican who campaigned for John Kerry during his 2004 run for president, said she’s not satisfied that the country is safe enough now. “I wish the billions of dollars we spent on wars overseas could have been used at home,” she said.
The women triggered a backlash from those who thought they were too partisan as they bashed Bush and supported Kerry. The apex came in 2006 when conservative commenter Ann Coulter, in a book, dubbed them the “Witches of East Brunswick.” ”I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much,” Coulter wrote.
Hillary Clinton, then a U.S. senator, was among those who came to their defense.
Smith said the criticism was hard for him to accept. They were grassroots activists, he said, doing what they thought was right.
Both Breitweiser and Van Auken say their activism was the right thing to do, though they’re not happy with the results.
“I only have regrets about the outcome,” Van Auken said. “I have regrets that nobody was held accountable.”
Van Auken, now 56, is in the same home where she lived with her children — now in their 20s — and husband, Kenneth, before he was killed.
Since 9/11 Van Auken has taken up beekeeping. As colonies have died off mysteriously, she’s tried to rally other beekeepers to fight for a federal ban of the pesticide clothianidin.
Unlike a decade ago, she’s now savvy about how government works.
So far, the EPA has not been willing to ban the pesticide. Van Auken says she’s not surprised, “We know from 9/11 that the EPA is not above bending to political will when they said the air was safe to breathe and all those people got sick,” she said.
Breitweiser, now 40 and living in New York, is the Jersey Girl with the highest profile.
A lawyer by training, though she never practiced, she was often the spokeswoman, and she was the one who campaigned extensively for Kerry, wrote a memoir focusing on her political education and now blogs occasionally for the Huffington Post.
She still writes about 9/11 but also about other national security issues. She is particularly concerned that chemical plants are not safe enough.
Her main job, she said, is raising her daughter, Caroline.
Caroline is 12 now and was a toddler when her father, Ron, died. Caroline, she says, doesn’t have a memory of a dad. Breitweiser said that makes raising her alone easier but also sadder. Breitweiser says she knows that her husband would have continued to be a great father.
Breitweiser has been trying to expose Caroline to Muslim people and their beliefs. They’ve traveled to Morocco and are planning to go to Turkey and Egypt in the next year.
It’s all part of a lesson she didn’t imagine needing to teach her daughter 10 years ago. “It’s OK if women have a veil over their face. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people,” she said. “I don’t want her growing up with any sort of hatred or rage inside of her.”
On Sept. 11, she intends to do what she always does on the anniversary: take a walk with her daughter and their dogs — currently three undisciplined Golden Retrievers — on a beach or in the woods.
She wants to stay far away from the solemn commemorations in New York City and elsewhere.
Van Auken will be in New York, but not at the ground zero ceremony. She’ll be there to see her daughter Sarah, now 22, act in a play.