NEW YORK, March 31 (UPI) -- The first public hearing Monday of the blue ribbon commission set up to probe the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks heard heart wrenching tales of horror from survivors and angry calls from victims' relatives for officials to be held accountable for their failures.
"They can no longer speak," said Harry Waizer of his dead co-workers, "I am left with the unchosen, unhappy task of trying to speak for them."
Waizer -- who was a vice president of financial services company Cantor Fitzgerald -- survived a fireball in a World Trade Center elevator that left him with third degree burns over much of his upper body. His lungs and windpipe were seared by flaming jet fuel from one of the hijacked airliners that suicide terrorists crashed into the building the morning of Sept. 11. When he arrived at hospital, he was later told, his chances of survival were thought to be no better than 5 percent.
"When (my wife) Karen saw me, I was not recognizable. My head was swollen to the size of a basketball," Waizer went on, as other survivors in the small audience sobbed softly.
Waizer -- one of four survivors to testify before the 10-members of the commission -- echoed the skepticism of many there, "Commissions such as this," he said, "eventually produce reports that are read carefully and seriously ... Yet the findings of such commissions are often ignored in the end ... after the glare of the public spotlight fades. My fear is that the work of this commission will have a similar fate."
David Lim, a Port Authority police officer, gave a heart-stopping account of being inside the first tower to be hit when it collapsed. "You could hear the sound of the floors above pancaking," he said, "it was like an onrushing express train."
Lim said that although he still suffers nightmares and other psychological ill effects from that day, and had already served long enough to be eligible for his full pension, he had no intention of retiring. "I will retire at a time of my choosing," he said, "No way is some knucklehead from Afghanistan going to decide when this cop retires."
Lee Ielpi, a firefighter with the New York Fire Department, called himself "an ambassador for the dead." His son, also a firefighter was lost in the attack. He described in gruesome detail the process of "recovery," finding and identifying the remains of the victims, including his own son. He called himself one of the lucky ones because his son was one of only 292 victims -- from a total toll at the Twin Towers of 2,792 -- whose entire body was found. He said that no identifiable remains whatever had been recovered from more than 1,300 of the victims.
Like all of the relatives and survivors giving evidence Monday, Ielpi appealed to the commissioners to get to the bottom of the intelligence and other failures that led to the attacks. "America's guardians failed us that day," he said, "now it's your turn."
Representatives of the families have sent the panel a list of 150 questions about government failure that day, and many believe that the lessons have still not been learned.
But officials from New York City government who testified seemed sanguine about the steps that had already been taken to address many of the problems experienced on Sept. 11. "Clearly there were some issues in the past," said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly about the sharing of intelligence among federal agencies and between them and state and local authorities. "I think that's changed since 9/11 ... Quite frankly, (federal intelligence officials) don't want to be caught holding information that should have gone out."
Both Kelly and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta appeared unexpectedly alongside Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Commission members said they would want to speak with both again, when they had had a better chance to prepare questions.
Bloomberg said that the professionalism and bravery of the city's emergency personnel "is encapsulated in one statistic: 25,000 people were safely evacuated from the World Trade Center that morning -- the most successful urban emergency evacuation in modern history."
Stephen Push, whose wife was a passenger on the plane that was crashed into the Pentagon, said his rage against the perpetrators grew into something else as he learned of the series of failures that had allowed the attackers to enter the country and carry out their deadly mission. "I also became angry at my government," he said.
Taking issue with the statement of the chairman, former GOP New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who said the panel's job was not to point fingers, Push said: "I think this commission should point fingers ... There were people, people in responsible positions, who failed us ... Some of those people are still in responsible positions in government. Perhaps they shouldn't be."
In answer to questions from panel members about the new Department of Homeland Security, he said he believed it had been set up merely to satisfy public concern. "We've just changed the label," he said.
He urged the panel to recommend a shake up of the nation's 14 separate intelligence agencies, including the establishment of a domestic intelligence agency modeled on Britain's MI5 and the appointment of an intelligence czar. "You would never even dream in the private sector of having 14 different departments doing the same thing and no one in charge," he said.
He also called for action to address "the causes of terror," saying it would require "a major change in the government's mindset." He said U.S. policy in the Middle East "especially towards our so-called friends like Saudi Arabia," needed to be re-evaluated. "We also need to re-examine our policy towards Israel. I am a supporter of Israel, but we've turned a blind eye to the expansion of the settlements (in the Palestinian territories), and it's all connected."
"I believe that we will never be safe from terrorism," he concluded, "until the Arab Muslim countries begin to experience democracy."
Mindy Kleinberg, who lost her husband in the attacks, poured scorn on the idea that terrorists who hijacked the four planes that day just got lucky. "The 9/11 terrorists were not lucky just once. They were lucky over and over and over again," she said, outlining the many warnings ignored and procedures not followed. She said that had the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department "followed the law, at least 15 of the hijackers would have been denied visas and would not have been in the United States on September 11th, 2001."
She also criticized the Federal Aviation Administration's delay in notifying the military about the hijacking, and their delay in scrambling fighters to try and intercept the planes. "In a national emergency," she said, "seconds of indecision can cost thousands of lives."
Kean thanked all the witnesses, pointing out that, were it not for the persistent demands of the families, the commission probably would not have been formed at all. President George W. Bush initially opposed the establishment of such an inquiry, and only vocal public lobbying of congress by victims' relatives ensured the passage of the bill mandating the ten member panel last October.
Since then, the commission has faced several hurdles.
Firstly the nomination of controversial former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger to head the panel caused protests about the possibility of conflicts of interest - Kissinger runs a lobbying firm with many lucrative contracts with foreign governments and other entities. Eventually, he and the first choice for deputy, former Senate leader George Mitchell, both stepped aside late last year after demands were made that they disclose their client lists.
Then the panel was hobbled by a tiny budget -- $3 million, a tenth of what was spent inquiring into the Whitewater scandal. Last week, commission members said that they had secured a pledge from the White House to up the budget to $12 million, which their staff say will be sufficient.
But the delays have left the panel with a tight deadline - they are congressionally mandated to report by May 2004, only 13 months away, and have what everyone acknowledges to be a huge task.
Commissioner Jamie S. Gorelick congratulated the relatives for their tenacious research, saying it was extraordinary how much they had been able to discover about failures that preceded the attacks with very limited resources and no power of subpoena. "We're turning it over to you now," responded Mary Fetchet, whose 24-year-old son was killed, "and we want to see lots of subpoenas," added Push.
The commission members were all clearly cognizant of the degree of skepticism from many relatives and members of the public. "People are wary," Kean told reporters afterwards, and in his introductory remarks he cited two unhappy precedents -- the panels set up to investigate Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination, saying neither "had fully satisfied the hopes of those who created them."
Push said later he was "keeping his fingers crossed" that the panel would get the cooperation it needed from senior officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and CIA Director George Tenet. He said that having been "dragged kicking and screaming" into giving the commission the go-ahead, he hoped the White House would use its influence to ensure that officials gave testimony is closed door sessions where they could be questioned about security failures. He pointed out that Tenet gave evidence only in open session to the special congressional committee that probed the attacks, "and you can't ask him any questions that matter in public."
"I'm optimistic," said Kean, when asked whether he believed he would get the answers he wanted, "ask me again in six months."
The hearing, at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House in lower Manhattan, continues Tuesday.