9/11 family group decries banning politicians from commemoration

Monday, July 16, 2012 - 4:23pm

A small group of 9/11 victims' families is contesting the 9/11 memorial's decision to bar politicians from speaking at this year's commemoration ceremony on the anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks.

The group, led by retired Fire Department of New York Deputy Chief Jim Riches, called the National September 11 Memorial and Museum "totally hypocritical because banning the governors (of New York and New Jersey) from speaking is the ultimate political decision."

"No one individual or group should unilaterally make this decision not allowing Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo and Gov. (Chris) Christie to speak on 9/11," it added.

But the statements didn't seem to reflect the general opinion of most family members.

"They speak for themselves, and certainly not for me. And not for any of the family members I've spoken to," Charles Wolf, who lost his wife in the attacks, said in response to the family group's statements.

Riches, who lost his son on 9/11, said his group represents about 50 families.

Another 9/11 victim's family member, Debra Burlingame, said, "Families never wanted the deaths of 3,000 people politicized. I doubt very seriously that these few people out of thousands will get support for what they're saying."

Officials representing the memorial declined to comment Monday.

Joe Daniels, president of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, said last week the foundation "is focused on honoring the victims and their families in a way free of politics, and this ensures that continues."

In a letter sent to victims' families Wednesday, Daniels said that the reading of victims' names by family members will be "the exclusive focus of the program" during this year's ceremony.

"Ground zero" has a history of politicians speaking at anniversary ceremonies, with speakers such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is chairman of the memorial foundation's board of directors. Christie and Cuomo are among politicians who are honorary trustees.

"The decision is the memorial's to make and we are supportive of it," said Cuomo's spokesman, Josh Vlato.

At last year's ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the attacks that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center, President Barack Obama read a psalm.

It's been a tradition for victims' family members to lead a solemn reading of the names of their lost ones during commemorations at the memorial site.

The reading of the names "individualizes the masses of people who were killed. Those people were individuals who had individual lives," said Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, was working at the World Trade Center that day.

But Bloomberg had publicly considered ending the tradition.

"Some people have said change is good, and the subject's come up a couple times, and I think we've said the foundation board will talk about this," he said during a radio show in August 2011.

His comments brought much heat from some of the victims' families, who have blamed politicians for delays in construction of the memorial museum.

The museum was originally scheduled to open this year, marking the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but has been held up because of "disagreements" with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Bloomberg said in a news conference last year.

More than 3 million people have visited the memorial since its opening on September 11 of last year.

"We're still dealing with this. Eleven years later, and we're still talking about it," Wolf said.

The ceremony includes six moments of silence, representing crucial moments during the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, and the crash of United Flight 93 in rural Pennsylvania.

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