William Rodriguez was the last man to run out of the World Trade Center. Had he made it to work on time, he and the master key to the stairwells would have been near the top of the complex when the second plane hit.
Instead, he raced up the stairwells he had maintained for 20 years to unlock doors and help people escape. "I was protected for another purpose," he says. Credited with saving many lives, he received a National Hero Award from the Senate of Puerto Rico and organized the Hispanic Victims Group.
Like many others who lost family or were personally involved in Sept. 11, Mr. Rodriguez is convinced that much of what happened that day is still behind locked doors, and the only way to open them is to keep hurling questions at officials until they get answers. For such activists, the appearance of top Clinton and Bush administration officials before the 9/11 commission this week was a key moment, long awaited.
From the start, family and victims' groups have energized the official investigations. They were a driving force behind the creation of the 9/11 commission and the joint congressional investigation than preceded it. They describe themselves as the commission's best friends - and "worst nightmare."
"We are flooded with questions," says Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which was to conclude its eighth public hearing Wednesday. "A lot of people work this stuff very doggedly and may not understand what it means. But it's healthy to have someone saying: 'What's the answer to this?' We do pay attention to what people are saying."
Commissioner Jamie Gorelick credits family groups with providing a "road map" for the official investigation. Working through an official liaison, family groups send questions and suggestions to the commission.
The families started with the most basic question: Why is there no official investigation of what went wrong on Sept. 11? Their demand that there be such an investigation - and quickly - muscled the 9/11 commission through the Congress and the White House.
Since then, families have sent the commissioners a constant stream of questions - hundreds for President Bush alone, should he agree to testify publicly. Among them:
• What defensive measures did you take in response to pre-9/11 warnings from 11 nations about a terrorist attack, many of which cited an attack in the continental United States?
• Please explain why no one in any level of government has yet been held accountable for the failures leading up to and on 9/11.
• Why was author Bob Woodward permitted access to confidential presidential daily briefings while the joint inquiry, and subsequently the commission, was not?
The groups say they get their information from a close reading of news media and the Internet. "There is a national and international network of investigators who work together on this thing," says John Judge, a founder of 9/11 CitizensWatch, one of the groups observing the proceedings.
In anticipation of this week's hearings, CitizensWatch launched ads in the Washington area newspapers calling for fuller disclosure. It reads: "We deserve full disclosure on 9/11: The families of 9/11 victims and Americans everywhere demand that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore testify publicly under oath to the 9/11 commission."
"You'll note we included Clinton and Gore," says 9/11 CitizensWatch organizer Kyle Hence.
"Unless we get full disclosure, people will be able to argue that aliens did it," he says, referring to the vast range of Sept. 11 theories on the Internet. Many associated with CitizensWatch don't shrink from the term "conspiracy," but prefer "Deep Politics."
For many seated in the front rows of the 9/11 hearings this week - and keeping close notes on the proceedings - the questions are right on the surface.
"Look at this!" says Mindy Kleinberg, a member of the Family Steering Committee, which helped establish the 9/11 commission. She points to her heavily annotated copy of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's testimony on Tuesday. "Right here he says that at 9:38 he really had no idea that planes had been hijacked.... Who didn't call and tell him that we were a nation under attack and we needed to get fighter jets in the air?"
While welcoming the first appearance of top officials testifying under oath this week, family groups say they want tougher questions and follow-up.
"They don't usually ask our questions, which disappoints us. We've done a lot of work," says Lori Van Auken, another member of the Family Steering Committee, which submitted 37 pages of questions for this week's hearings alone.
Ms. Auken and other family activists lobbied successfully for an extension of the 9/11 commission's work for another two months, although she said the group had hoped for an extension until January 2005.
"We were flatly told there was no way the White House would agree," says steering committee member Kristen Breitweiser. "The White House stonewalled the commission for a year, and it's drastically behind. But because it's an election year, we won't be able to do that."