9/11 Families and the Mosque Controversy
September 27, 2011, 8:27 pm ET
The families of victims of 9/11 have been at the center of the Park51 controversy. Many have joined, and even lead, the national debate. But they don’t all agree.
We spoke with Rosaleen Tallon, Charles Wolfe and Lee Hanson about their views on the project. Click on the name of each individual to read more about their loss and their perspective on the controversy.
She is the sister of firefighter Sean Tallon, who died on duty in the north tower.
He is the husband of Katherine Wolfe, whose office was on the 97th floor of the north tower.
He lost his son, Peter, his daughter-in-law Sue and his granddaughter Christine on the second plane.
How did you discover that Sean had died?
“Don’t they realize that this is a very sensitive thing, that Sean was murdered down here by Islamic terrorists? He was murdered because some Islamic terrorists felt that Sean was an infidel. … I think that the people proposing to build this are being very intolerant of American traditions, the American tradition of honoring her hero dead.”
… The fire department came one day. … That was very tough for my parents to see them arrive and their dress uniform. It’s I guess akin to when the military comes to the door to give you the news of a fallen soldier. And they came with two gentlemen who had gone up into the tower with Sean that day. … They were part of that unit that Sean had gone in with that morning, so they survived. So it was very hard. It was an extremely emotional day when they came into our home to tell us that Sean was definitely gone.
The real confirmation of knowing that Sean was gone was when his body was found. … He was found with a number of other firemen — I think there were 10 in total — and they were found with a lot of civilians. So I know that he must have been offering some assistance to those civilians in there. And that gives me comfort, because he was doing his job. …
Where was he found?
He was found in the rubble of the north tower. We were lucky. With 9/11 there’s levels of what you consider being fortunate. We did receive Sean’s torso, and parts of his leg, and part of his head separated. I don’t mean to be so graphic, but this is the state he was found in.
For a couple of months after, there were calls from medical examiners, with other parts like bones and flesh of the head [that] were found separate. But they found the majority of him.
Tell me about the coroners’ report and the death certificate
We always had the coroner’s report and the death certificate, but we delved in more on Sean’s loss since this Ground Zero mosque controversy has come about. It’s caused me to delve more in to the fact that it was no accident. That this was a murder. What’s written on Sean’s death certificate is homicide. So that means somebody had an intent to kill. That’s what homicide is. It’s not an accident. It’s not natural causes. This was a homicide. This was an attack on our country …
When the Ground Zero mosque controversy erupted, I learned about it and I went down to the Burlington Coat Factory, and saw how close it was to the north tower. Something in me got very upset because I felt, doesn’t anybody know? Don’t the people that are doing these plans, don’t they realize that this is a very sensitive thing, that Sean was murdered down here by Islamic terrorists? He was murdered because some Islamic terrorists felt that Sean was an infidel. That’s the word I learned, all these things after. This is why he was killed. I’m sure they were reciting verses from the Quran, on the planes that attacked the towers. …
When I go down to remember 9/11 on the anniversaries, no matter what memorial is built, the place I go to remember Sean, it’s like a little spot in the sky, where I pictured he made up his way up to in the north tower. I can go to the corner of the Burlington Coat Factory and I can look right at that spot. I can see the construction. It’s there. And when the people died that day, their remains were scattered there. There was even a part of the plane that hit that building. That’s Ground Zero. The proximity is just too close. It’s too close to where these people were killed. …
There should be no question. This should be reserved for remembering the people killed by Islamic terror, with no conflict. No antagonism, no people feeling like well, that’s not right. That’s when I start thinking, Sean was killed in the name of Islam. And I really don’t feel this is the place to celebrate Islamic culture, so close to this site where these people were murdered. …
And it’s not really about a mosque and Islamic center in Manhattan. It’s about a mosque and Islamic center at Ground Zero. And that’s where the real insensitivity is.
I get very upset when people start staying that we’re being intolerant. Because I feel New York is such a diverse, tolerant city. I think there’s no better place than New York for diversity. We pride ourselves in that. So to say that we’re not being tolerant? I can’t accept that.
As a matter of fact, I think it’s the opposite. I think that the people proposing to build this are being very intolerant of American traditions, the American tradition of honoring her hero dead. Battlefields, like Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, where people have been killed for being American. It’s a battlefield. It’s an honored battlefield. …
People also say, well they have the constitutional right to build. Now that’s obvious. And I am proud of that constitutional right. But I question why these people are not looking at well is this really the right thing to do in terms of respect, and sensitivity?
And I feel they should also be looking as to what happened to their fellow Americans there that day and say, “I put my American patriotic feeling about my fellow American that day ahead of my allegiance to my Islamic culture. Let me build it somewhere else. I don’t want to hurt any family members or anything.” …
What’s so sad about this whole controversy is instead of healing and building bridges, it’s done the opposite. It’s made people angry. And it’s made people look into Islam and question why are they doing this. …
For some people, the specialness, if you like, of Ground Zero, is also to do with the fact that there are bits and pieces of human remains scattered around.
… We were very fortunate to recover most of Sean. But there were still other identifications made of Sean, so there may have been other parts. My mom still feels bits of Sean could be down at Ground Zero.
But we also got to know so many family members that never recovered any part of their loved one. Never had a cemetery to visit. Their cemetery is Ground Zero, and the dust got washed into the ground there. … It’s very personal. I’ve often said the family members will lie down on the ground there, before we let something that we feel is just inherently wrong happen. …
It’s so sad that’s it’s been made into this issue of bigotry. That’s convenient for the people on the other side to paint us as that. But if they got to know us, and if they really looked into the people who we loved and lost, they’d find out we were just regular people, who just want something held. … My goodness, if we were out to be bigots against the Muslim religion, we would have done it a long time ago. We would have done it in the aftermath of 9/11. We would have called for investigations of mosques. We would have got very involved in advocacy, against Islamic culture. It’s not about that. …
The people that proposed this mosque, they never held a forum to reach out to the families at large. They did reach out to families that were on their side. But there is no embracing. For people who are building bridges, wouldn’t that be the first group of people you would reach out to, would be the people [whose] loved ones were murdered? …
Now for me, the veil of secrecy has been lifted off, and I see it for what it is. I see that it’s people that are kind of trying to push something forward, and they’re willing to say and do whatever it is they need to do to get something done. But we will not let that happen at Ground Zero. I will not let that happen where my brother was murdered. …
… [For some defenders of the project, this is about combating radicalism.] So in order to stop this happening again, we need to preach a different kind of Islam. And what better place to do it than at Ground Zero?
Well I say to that, what better place than to start with the people that attacked us. I think there should be a Cordoba Initiative in Saudi Arabia, or in Yemen, or in the places where they want to come attack us.
Aren’t they the people that need to learn the tolerance? They’re the people that came here and attacked us. What are we learning here? That’s what I’d like to say to them. What am I going to learn about? My brother was the one killed. What am I supposed to do? … I understand we are supposed to learn why all of Islam is not like that. I already know that. Obviously I’m not going after all the Muslim people I meet. …
My mom has said, at Ground Zero, people that are going into that mosque, if it was ever built the majority would be very peaceful Muslims. But what about the people going down, to pray at that mosque who feel that attack was justified. They were proud about it and they may do another one. I can’t have that at Ground Zero. I have a family; I have my other things in life. For me, it was always just a simple thing that it was so disrespectful and dishonorable. …
What do you say to Americans who say that the terrorists of 9/11, were attacking the American way of life, and one of the most fundamental things to the American way of life is freedom of religion.
Absolutely. My brother signed up for the US Marine Corps, to defend the constitution, to defend the country, liberty [and] freedom, but there was a code in the Marine Corps of behavior, of respect.
So rights are one thing. But so is respect. America is built on both. Leaving out the respect aspect, is leaving out a huge part of America. Because that’s why the men signed on the dotted line, to serve their country. They’re not forced to. It’s respect and love for country. So I think we’re leaving out a large portion of what America is all about. …
So can you imagine young Muslim Americans, or American born people with Muslim parents, can you ever seen them being like just as American as you?
Absolutely. I could certainly see it. I don’t know if their Muslim religion allows that type of allegiance to America, like my Catholic faith. I’m allowed to be completely American.
If I thought that a Catholic Church shouldn’t be built somewhere, and I spoke out a bit, the Catholic Church wouldn’t shun me. But I don’t know if that’s the same in Islam. I don’t think anybody really knows that at this stage, unless you’re attending a mosque. As a woman, I don’t even know if a female is allowed to speak out without permission from somebody.
“In my opinion, a lot of people were manipulated. … This is an emotional thing for not just 9/11 family members, 9/11 is an emotional thing for a lot of people in this country… I would say that it’s highly likely that those people on the far right who are doing this knew there was an emotional hot button they could go to, to press.”
It was a terrible day. The plane that hit the first tower, hit my wife’s tower, flew right over our apartment. I’m a pilot and I knew something was awry. … It was a beautiful, coolish spring morning and I heard this roar and you never heard it coming. You never heard where it came from nor where it went. And I thought what the bleep is the military doing exercises in the middle of Manhattan for? … All of a sudden I hear kaboom… And then someone from the street yelled, “Oh my God, a plane has just hit the World Trade Center.” And I yelled back down to her from my balcony, I says, “Are you kidding me? My wife works there.” … I watched it happen. I fielded phone calls from my father and her father. And I remember watching tower one at about 10:25. I looked at it. I said that’s off the vertical. It’s going to go. And so when the antenna dropped and then the building fell down. I just stood up and I said, well I guess I’m going to have to start my life over. … I realized that she was gone and that was it. There’s no way, there was no way that she could be alive, by process of elimination. … The next day, the grief started crashing down. I crashed. Got myself back up again. It was not easy. I didn’t have any family around. …
You never got any remains?
No remains. She was hit dead on. She was vaporized.
… When did you first hear about the so-called Ground Zero Mosque?
I didn’t even know about [the controversy] until I was called by a member of Community Board 1. I was asked, “Have you heard about this community centre they’re calling a Ground Zero mosque?” I said no, I haven’t.
[She] said, “how would you feel about a mosque being built a few blocks from Ground Zero?” And I said, “I don’t have any problem with it.” And she said, “Would you be willing to come down and speak on it?” I go, “Absolutely,” because I totally believe in freedom of religion, period. And just on the spot didn’t have to think about it. No, I don’t have a problem with it.
And so I went down there, and I was shocked [by] what I found. … So many of the people who we had fought side by side, I now found ourselves on opposite sides of the fence. So many 9/11 family members.
But what really, really surprised me was the incredible emotion and the vitriol that came out of people. … The anger in this room just grew upon itself. It was amazing. I stood there for three hours waiting to speak and I really had to detach myself emotionally from what was going on and be an observer, because it’s so easy to get swept up. … I saw intelligent, reasonable people get angrier than I’d ever seen them get, and that is what really surprised me. I’m not trying to say that these people are wrong in how they felt about this — given what they were told — but it really was amazing what I saw. Just amazing. … In my opinion, a lot of people were manipulated. The press just went all over this thing. They were showing this one diagram, this one sketch, and obviously when you’re looking to promote something and start raising funds for it, you want to make it look as beautiful as possible and so forth. Well this sketch made it look like it was going to stand out with [a] big gold front. … In reality, there had already been a Muslim prayer center in that space, for over a year before this thing erupted. This whole thing was contrived by the far right, and it’s a shame, [an] absolute shame. …
This is called prejudice. Prejudice is when you take a single event, or a small collection of events and apply them too generally. This is prejudice. The vast majority of Americans have not had experience with Muslims. In fact the only experience of Muslims that they’ve had is through the television camera.
And the only Muslims that have gotten attention on television are the radical Muslims. So it’s no wonder people think this. They think they’re all like this. But they’re not. … Islam is the new entry into America, even though it’s been here for quite a while, but you still don’t know about it. …
The notion of Ground Zero as hallowed ground is an expression that comes into all of the discussions. Is Ground Zero hallowed ground to you?
Yeah it is. It is. And we fought very hard for that. I think part of the reason why it’s hallowed ground is because this is where it all happened.
So many people were just vaporized. My wife was vaporized. She was hit instantly. She was directly in the path of the first plane that hit at 8:46.
And I am almost positive that parts of her were blown away and the rest of her went up in smoke. What nobody wants to talk about really is that a lot of that ash that came down you know. … So yeah, this is hallowed ground. There’s no doubt about that.
Does the notion of hallowed ground and Ground Zero extended for you beyond the footprints of the towers?
No, it’s not the footprints of the towers. I think it’s the 16 acres. Because let’s face it, debris was all over the place.
What are you going to do? Declare all over lower Manhattan? No, you define what it is. It’s a defined area. It is Ground Zero, those 16 acres. And within those sixteen acres we have a space for memorial and a memorial museum. And when you take a look at that, that’s a wonderful thing and we’re going to have a wonderful memorial there. … So we have our sacred ground. We [the families] got what we fought for and we fought very, very hard for it. Fought very hard for it. …
An Old Burlington Coat Factory building that had a part of the landing gear from United 175 flew over after crashing into Tower 2 and landed in there –that doesn’t make it sacred. Just because the landing gear from a quarter of a mile away ended up inside doesn’t make that building sacred. But people want to claim it is, because they want to use that claim of sacredness as a way to try to garner people’s emotions to want to stop this thing. …
All these really intense feelings, unresolved grief, all of these actions and everything which I can’t even begin to imagine, I’m sure rises in the families of victims — do you think that these feelings have been used as political assets?
I don’t know. … This is an emotional thing for not just 9/11 family members, 9/11 is an emotional thing for a lot of people in this country… It’s not just here in New York. There is an emotional hot button. So I would say that it’s highly likely that those people on the far right who are doing this knew there was an emotional hot button they could go to press. Highly likely.
What’s their agenda do you think?
I’m not really sure. … I know there’s 9/11 family members on the far right and I know they honestly believe and they’ve been through it too. But the people outside of the 9/11 family members, I don’t know what their agenda really is. Because someone who’s been through it is a little different than someone who, shall we say wants to make a name for themselves. Big difference. … I’ve fought for a number of issues, whether it’s the 9/11 victim compensation fund or searching for remains or getting rid of a political museum attached to the memorial, any of those things. And there were other people fought for other things. If it weren’t for 9/11 family members we never would have had the studies that told us how the towers fell down. If it wasn’t for the 9/11 family members, we never would have had the 9/11 Commission. If it wasn’t for 9/11 family members we never would have had a national intelligence director.
There’s a lot of things that 9/11 family members stepped out and did depending on their own interests. And nobody assigned it to them. They just went out and did it because leadership is taken, not given. So I’m very, very proud to be part of that group of people. …
The mosque isn’t the first issue that’s split the 9/11 family members is it?
9/11 family members have never been in agreement on anything, except the fact that 9/11 was horrible.
People tend to look at 9/11 family members as [though] we ought to be all unanimous. Well the only thing we’re unanimous about is we’re [in] grief about our loved ones.
And let’s face it, what, 2,900 people were killed in the towers? You probably got 10 times that many family members per person. How in the world are you going to get unanimity on 29,000 people? That’s silly to even think. So you can’t even go there.
The news media loves to kind of compartmentalize this and put it, “9/11 family members believe in this.” And there’s that one person, but I don’t believe in that. …
“If you go around the United States today, there are people that don’t know too much more about the issue except that they see it as a victory mosque. And I think it may be unfortunate… but the whole approach to it was so poor that I think it’s poisoned the idea. I don’t think there’ll ever be a mosque built there.”
It was 8:52 in the morning and the telephone rang. And it was Peter, and he said “Dad, we’re on the airplane,” he said, “and we’ve been hijacked.”
He said, “It’s really getting bad.” I started to say something and then he said “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” I heard somebody scream. We turned around and we looked at the television and we saw that plane coming in. And we saw it hit. And we both knew that it was Peter’s plane. …
I never realized the importance of having some remains. They recovered a small bone from Peter’s leg. And I held it in my hand. Not very much, but it was part of Peter. I mean, he was my son. And it was like a very important thing to have that. …
[Christine] was 2 and a half when they took that plane ride. I used to sit back and hold her in my arms like this. And I can’t tell you how many times that, when I’m sitting in a chair like that, that my arm goes like this and I can actually feel her there. I mean, feel her presence. And then she was really growing up to be a beautiful little girl.
And I saw them just before 9/11 and I said — just out of the clear — I says, “You know, Christine, I love you.” And she said, “I love you, too, Papa.” And I said, “Aren’t we lucky we have each other to love?” And she put out her arms and a great, big smile and did a happy dance. And I didn’t know that’s the last time I was going to see them. …
If you go around the United States today, there are people that don’t know too much more about the issue except that they see it as a victory mosque. And I think it may be unfortunate … but the whole approach to it was so poor that I think it’s poisoned the idea. I don’t think there’ll ever be a mosque built there.
… It’s too late. It’s not going to make the difference. The harm has been done to having the mosque there. I say [they] have the right to do it. Everyone says [they] have the right to do it. But when you have the right to do something, giving up that right for a noble reason is what heroes are made of. …
Photo: Lee Hanson’s son, Peter, his daughter-in-law Sue and his granddaughter Christine, who died on United Airlines Flight 175.
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