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For 9/11 families, loss bred activism

When the flowers had wilted, the sympathy cards had slowed, and their mother had been memorialized in a lakeside service, Carie and Danielle Lemack sat in their mom's Framingham home and pondered how to channel their shock and grief into action. Their mother, Judy Larocque, was en route to a business meeting in Los Angeles when she died aboard American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001. She was 50 years old. Two weeks after the terrorist attacks, the FBI held a meeting for the victims' families. The Lemack sisters circulated a sign-up sheet to obtain participants' contact information, not quite sure what they'd do with it. "It was all these horrified people standing around," says Carie, who was 26 when her mother died. "At first, we didn't want to be around others in the same situation. But then we realized we are those people. No one else could quite understand what had happened. And there was so much going on, we realized we needed to reach out to other families."

A month after their loved ones were killed, Families of September 11 was born. A handful of shell-shocked relatives met at the Newton Marriott. They elected a board and came up with a mission: to promote the interests of the victims' families and to advocate for stronger antiterrorism policies. Two years later, some 1,500 people have joined the organization. They come from different generations, different backgrounds, and different places, but they share an unspeakable tragedy -- and the need to do something.

For Carie Lemack, the group has offered a way to regain some control over the uncontrollable. "Being informed and being involved in the political process and doing the advocacy work we've been doing helps us regain very small bits of control in that we're less surprised by things," she says. "Now, we generally know about things ahead of the media, and that has been extremely helpful and empowering."

In the past two years, the family group has taken up such issues as airport security, a ground zero memorial, compensation for victims' families, and obtaining their loved ones' remains and personal property. They've lobbied Congress. They've met with Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the Sept. 11 victims' compensation fund, with Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. They've spent countless hours with reporters. They've responded to charges from talk show hosts and others that they're greedy. ("You wouldn't believe the e-mails we get. `You're worse than Osama bin Laden!' `You deserve what happened to you!' " says Lemack wryly).

The group fought United Way and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which at first were going to give emergency aid only to the New York and New Jersey families. In June 2002, they rallied in Washington, demanding an independent commission to investigate the attacks. "President Bush was adamantly opposed to it," Lemack says. "It took us 14 months to get it."

And they continue to keep tabs on airline safety. "Only 2 percent of the cargo is checked," she says. "I can't live in fear; I do fly." She pauses and adds: "When I have kids, I may not be able to do it. I don't want them stuck in the same situation my sister and I were stuck in."

The organization has two paid staffers working out of New York and a website (www.familiesofseptember11.org). They raise money through grants and donations. Carie Lemack stepped aside as president this year; she is now vice president, her sister Danielle secretary. Thomas Roger, whose daughter Jean was a flight attendant on Flight 11, is the president. Jean Roger was off that day but got called in that morning to substitute for an ill colleague.

For Roger, a vice president of Gilbane Building Company, becoming politically involved in the aftermath of personal tragedy has been both a blessing and a curse. "By becoming actively involved, you're continually reminded of the situation, and in effect you're postponing dealing with some of the personal issues," says Roger, who lives in Longmeadow. "But on the other side, I felt I had to do something other than just sit and grieve. I'm a Type A personality, and I've come to understand that becoming involved is a form of grieving. And you feel you make a difference on behalf of Jean and the others who can't be here."

Roger's primary interest is ground zero, both the memorial and the rebuilding. He is a member of the Families Advisory Council of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and attends all their meetings in New York. He has also been drawn into the controversy over victims' remains and personal property, finding himself in the position of having to explain to families why their loved ones' articles have not been returned. "A frustrating middle-man job," he calls it.

Though his family did get his daughter's remains back, no personal property has been returned. Unlike some other families, who are angry that they've gotten nothing back, Roger understands. "It's just so beyond the scale of anything that has ever happened. You had the personal effects of everybody and everything in that building, all mixed together with all the terrible destruction. How do you pair people up with things? It just seems like an impossible task."

Not all family members choose to get involved in a group. Some lack the interest, others the time. Dr. Stephen Holland's wife, Cora, was also on Flight 11, en route to Los Angeles to see her disabled mother. The couple had been empty nesters for a week, having just taken their youngest, a son, to Fordham University, where he was a freshman. After his mother died, the son returned home to Sudbury, to stay with his father for the year. Two older daughters live in the New York area.

With his son and one daughter, Holland attended that first meeting of Families of September 11. "I remember the thing that struck me most was there was a woman there from a national organization for airline disasters. She had lost a son on a flight years ago. And I realized, `Oh my God, she's 10 years out and she has dedicated her life to airline safety.' "

As medical director of a start-up longterm health care company, Holland could take only two weeks off. "There is no one else but me," he says. "I had to go back to work." Still, he stayed active in the group for several months until he ran out of steam, trying to work 60 hours and be both mother and father to his kids.

"I was just being overwhelmed by my job and my children," he says. He still supports the group, and regularly writes his congressman, senator, and President Bush on myriad issues.

Holland sees political activism as a means to heal, and to vent. "It's a way to do something. I mean, my wife vaporized. I put her on an airplane and she was gone from my life," he says. "We didn't get to hold a hand or see a body. I think it's a way to do something positive after a devastating loss. I think it's a way to be angry, and to try to prevent it from happening again."

Carie Lemack agrees. "Everyone has pent-up anger or frustration. For me, this is a way to act out in a more positive way. This is something I can't not do . . . when you feel passionate about something."

Perhaps most of all, says Holland, it's a way to remind the country of what happened on that day two years ago. "You leave New York or Boston and go to Chicago or Indianapolis and 9/11 is a blip," sighs Holland.

He knows some family members who are adamant that ground zero be preserved as a sacred spot, "who will throw their bodies in front of tractors to prevent rebuilding." Others, like him, want a fitting memorial, but know that New York "has to get on with its life."

It's a metaphor, perhaps, for getting on with one's own life. "None of us have an answer, and we all have different opinions, and a lot of it is still driven by grief," he says. "There are people moving on with their lives and there are others who haven't moved on at all."

Carie Lemack, who is getting a graduate degree and caring for her mother's beloved dog, Naboo, says her activism will continue indefinitely. "Staying involved is a way to live with what happened. Hopefully, other families won't have to go through this. That's the only way you can keep your sanity. Otherwise, the pain is too overwhelming."

Still, she knows such a life isn't for everyone; there is only one mother with young children on her board. Christie Coombs knows why. When her husband, Jeff, was killed on Flight 11, she was left with children aged 13, 11, and 7. She and others like her have their hands full getting through the day. Still, they remain active in a support group for families -- the Mass 9/11 Fund -- which provides emotional and financial help. And many have their pet projects; for Coombs, it's the Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation, which provides scholarships and aid for families in need.

"On a local level, the mothers of young kids are less involved politically," says Coombs, who lives in Abington. "For us to try to get to Washington or New York to do presentations is just impossible. For me, it's not likely I'm going to travel by plane without my kids."

Carie Lemack takes care of her mother's dog, Naboo. Lemack and her sister spurred the creation of Families of September 11 after their mother was killed on American Airlines Flight 11. Carie Lemack takes care of her mother's dog, Naboo. Lemack and her sister spurred the creation of Families of September 11 after their mother was killed on American Airlines Flight 11. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)
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