Discover more from Dispatches with Hollie McKay
The husband of a 9/11 victim recalls the fight he made in her name to assist survivors and victims
On the 22nd anniversary of the attacks that changed the world
The roar of a plane flying low over his downtown Manhattan apartment on Tuesday, Sept.11, 2001, sent chills through Charles Wolf.
“I knew in that fraction of a second it was a twin-engine jet going full throttle. I ran out onto the balcony which faced north – and it was dead silent,” Charles, now in his late sixties, told me. “I stepped back through the sliding glass door, and all I heard was ‘Ka-boom.’ Then someone on the street said, ‘Oh my God, a plane has gone into the World Trade Center,’ and I yelled back, ‘Are you kidding me? My wife works there.’”
The following days passed in an agonizing blur for the musician, pilot, and businessman. Every time the phone rang, his heart leaped into his throat, and he scrambled in anticipation. But Friday came, and there was still no word from his bride, Katherine.
“I decided I needed to help myself, so I decided to go to the barber for a manicure. I’m a wreck,” Wolf remembered. “He couldn’t take me for a haircut, so I ran out the door without my umbrella. I could not speak my name.”
Katherine Wolf worked for the financial strategy firm Marsh & McLennan, located on the 97th floor of Tower One, the North Tower. She had been on the job for just two weeks. A few days earlier, her boss asked if she would mind starting at 8.30 am instead of nine – putting her right in the terrorists’ flight path.
That Friday afternoon, Charles impulsively ran from his barber and over to the firm’s midtown office. He was quickly escorted to a meeting where other anguished co-workers, loved ones and friends of missing employees were passing a microphone around and asking desperate questions. He found the answer.
“Finally, someone asks what the highest floor anybody got out of was. And then the magic words,” Charles recounted, adding that an executive had informed them that regardless of media reports, he had checked with other companies, and nobody above the 91st floor had been found alive. “When I heard that, I said she was gone. She is gone.”
There was an odd comfort Wolf felt in facing such a painful truth. Out of turn, he stood back up to face the sea of strange and sobbing faces before him.
“So, I stood up… I don’t know where this came from, but I wanted to say something positive. I said, ‘As far as I am concerned, our people were vaporized.’ Everyone gasped, like a Greek chorus,” Charles notes. “And I said, ‘Furthermore, we need to thank God that our people didn’t need to decide to stay there and burn or jump.’ And I sat down.”
Gradually, others, deep in shock and sadness, approached Charles with questions. He said he went from grieving to offering comfort in those moments. It also marked the beginning of a protracted journey – one that would last almost 18 years – to ensure suffering families were adequately taken care of by the federal government.
In the ensuing months, with the smoke of the twin towers fading into memory, Charles learned that some 2,200 men and 600 women were in the buildings, prompting a critical question. The imbalance indicated hundreds of widows were out there, left to care for their families.
“Who is left over? The women. What are the women going to be doing? Taking care of the family, that is their priority. The kids,” Charles asserted. “They aren’t going to be focusing on the financial aspect of things. I said, ‘I am going to do this for the widows because they will wake up four or five years later and say, ‘Why didn’t we do something?” I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I did it. I said the press is going to be my megaphone.”
The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, otherwise known as the VCF, had just been established to provide financial support “for any individual or a personal representative of a deceased individual who suffered physical harm or was killed as a result of the terrorist-related aircraft crashes of September 11, 2001, or the debris removal efforts that took place in the immediate aftermath of those crashes.”
At the time, Charles recalled, the process for seeking financial compensation was wrapped up in a web of red tape and political posturing. He noted that some in the media were conflating charity with victim compensation, and groups were even accusing women of being “greedy grieving widows.” In June 2002, he took it upon himself to create www.fixthefund.org as an advocacy organization to “fix the problems in the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund of 2001” and assist others in wading through “the mess.”
“The first incarnation (of the fund) had a two-year limit for application but no monetary limit; Congress had to appropriate the money. The second time, they did put a time limit on it and a monetary limit,” Charles explained. “As we all know, cancer has a gestation period, and then the cancer starts coming like a roar.”
The passage of time has brought thousands more victims as first responders continue to develop cancer and respiratory diseases. The attacks unleashed dangerous chemicals into the Manhattan air – asbestos, dioxins, and various carcinogenic materials. Other illnesses, including heart problems, also afflict first responders today.
According to a study conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week, a “significant association” has been detected between New York City firefighters who dashed into the burning building and an increased risk of long-term cardiovascular disease.
Medical researchers noted that those firefighters have a 44 percent higher chance of a cardiovascular ailment than those who arrived at the scene the following day. Such risks range from a heart attack and coronary artery surgery to angina and angioplasty.
Analysts now expect that those who have died and will continue to die due to exposure to toxins in the attack aftermath may well outnumber the nearly 3,000 who were killed in the towers that morning.
The road for relentless advocates like Charles was a rough one. After fighting for funds the first time, the second reiteration of the bill to help victims and families was re-authorized in late 2010 with $4.2 billion sidelined for survivors and the mandate that it required re-authorization in 2015. After a political melee, the legislation was extended for another five years. But by early 2019, the fund was falling. The money and limitation were slated to run out. Following an intense and emotional campaign – fronted by Jon Stewart – lawmakers signed on to ensure that those in need won’t be neglected. In late July, then-President Trump signed the “Never Forget the Heroes” bill that permanently re-authorized the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. The act extended the VCF’s claim filing deadline from December 18, 2020, to October 1, 2090, and “appropriates such funds as may be necessary to pay all approved claims.”
Charles’s website now reads, “The Fund is Fixed!” It was a monetary triumph but also a moral victory, an endeavor Wolf knows would have made his late wife “very happy.” More than 51,000 victims have applied to the fund, and more than $5.5 billion has been extended to those suffering.
“A lot of people, the rescue workers, they are tough people. They pull themselves up by the straps, tough people. Real salt-of-the-earth,” Charles stresses. “They don’t like asking for help, which is admirable. But this is something they did in the service of their country. Inquire, ask if you have any doubt whatsoever.”
For Charles, helping others keeps alive the memories of Katherine, whom he met in a church basement thirteen years earlier.
“When you move on, it doesn’t mean you have forgotten. When you move on, it doesn’t mean you don’t love the person you lost. It’s that time of the year when the emotions can get very raw again,” he said slowly. “One thing that really helped was when the new One World Trade Center peeked its head up from behind the buildings.”
It was a symbol of letting go but remembering at the same time.
“Repair and restoration,” Charles emphasizes. “That is a big part of what I have been about…”
Nevertheless, the work is never over. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund announced the merger of the PGA Tour and Saudi-funded LIV Golf. This prompted deep indignation from victims’ families, given that fifteen of the nineteen plane hijackers were Saudi nationals. More than 300 spouses and children of 9/11 victims asked for an in-person gathering with Yasir bin Othman Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
In a letter to the Investment Fund leadership, families requested the Kingdom “take responsibility for (its) participatory role in the 9/11 attacks.”
“After 22 years, the 9/11 widows and children simply want a resolution and a modicum of peace in our lives,” the letter states. “To us, if the Kingdom truly intends to rebrand its image and normalize its relations with the world, the first thing they should be willing to do is meaningfully address the grievances of the 9/11 widows and children.”
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