A city passionate about 9/11 hearings

New Yorkers, still healing from the attacks, see everything from conspiracy to optimism in the proceedings.

Manhattanite Laurie Tvedt has been glued to the television set watching the Sept. 11 commission's public hearings. She finds it helpful to "look back and admit mistakes."

Investor Steven Deutsch has spent at least an hour and a half each day listening in and now says, "I don't know what their objective is anymore."

And as she sits in the Winter Garden, nearly across the street from ground zero, Lenore Scendo thinks the hearings simply reflect partisan politics: "Everyone is just defending their positions, shielding the truth," she declares.

Eight million people live in New York, and - typical of the city's character - an equal number of opinions have emerged in the aftermath of the latest round of hearings. There are conspiracy theorists, those who think the proceedings are all "theater," and some who declare it a waste of time and money. Yet others hope the hearings prompt real changes so their own children will benefit.

Like the victims of a horrible crime, many have come to view the public airing as a necessary step - although not necessarily a healing one - to better understand why they were not better protected on Sept. 11. "You should never be afraid to look at everything you've done in the past, learn from it, and go out there and try to do it better next time," says Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "We got a wake-up call back in 1993 [the first World Trade Center bombing] that obviously we didn't take as seriously as we should have."

For many New Yorkers, probably the biggest surprise from the hearings has been news of the Aug. 6 intelligence briefing, when President Bush was warned that Al Qaeda wanted to strike in the US. Mr. Bush has since asserted there was no specific threat. But still, it's rubbed construction worker Antonio Peralta the wrong way. "There are things they should have done to prevent it because they knew an attack was coming," says Mr. Peralta, who worked on the post-Sept. 11 cleanup.

Rod Thomas, who was working in 2 World Trade Center on Sept. 11, says he is particularly troubled by the briefing news. "The fact that they covered it up shows that they dropped the ball," he says.

But last week, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani downplayed the importance of such information. He told the Associated Press that laying blame is like "Monday morning quarterbacking." Mr. Giuliani, who will testify next month before the commission, says so far he hasn't seen anything that would have alerted officials. "For any one thing to jump out, you almost have to know what's going to happen in the future," he told the AP.

As for Bush, the news is not likely to hurt him politically in New York, mainly because he's already not very popular. "It's not clear anything can make him less popular than he already is," says Mike Wallace, a historian and professor at John Jay College, part of the City University of New York. "To the degree it galvanizes public opinion and widens the purses, which are clearly going to send a lot of money in John Kerry's direction, it might have an impact."

Victim and family groups have been particularly diligent in monitoring the hearings and posting their analysis on websites. In some cases, they have even testified. For example, Lee Ielpi of the 9/11 Widows' and Victims' Families Association recounted to the commission "a sense of the horribleness" of ground zero, where he worked for nine months after his firefighter son, Jonathan, was lost. "I did charge them in my short time [testifying] that I would hope this would not be the typical rhetoric of other commissions which generate millions of pages and it all goes for naught," recalls the retired firefighter.

After listening to the hearings, he feels the commission may be getting somewhere. "Their tenor seems straightforward," he says.

Others who work in the financial district, however, are less positive. As he stands outside the neo-Baroque Trinity Building, commodities trader Tony Rosa contends that the hearings are a bureaucratic formality. "Terrorists are not going to strike the same way twice," he says. "Something of this nature will happen again."

In fact, some New Yorkers have little faith in the city's best efforts to improve security. One of those is Jose Reyes, who works at a bank in lower Manhattan. "I could go on a train right now and put something [there] and nobody would know," he says.

More security would appeal to Kevin Boyle, a retired NYPD sergeant, who was working on Broadway the day of the attacks. Now working in private security, he is outside the New York Stock Exchange. "Hopefully, through the commission, they can put some safeguards in place so [9/11] never happens again."

When the commission's final report is issued, some hope it will provide emotional solace. "The families - it's a very emotional [issue] to them, and they want answers to help relieve the pain," says Amber Freda, who works near ground zero.

But Mr. Wallace says the report will be just that - a report. "The wound will take time to heal," he says. "I don't think 9/11 will ever be forgotten."

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