Wake-Up Call

The Political Education of a 9/11 Widow


By Kristen Breitweiser

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The heart-wrenching account of a young mother widowed after the horrific 9/11 terrorist attack and her journey towards becoming a central activists in the fight for justice and peace.

Kristen Breitweiser was a happy young mother and housewife leading a privileged life. Then, on the morning of September 11th, 2001, the phone rang. It was her husband, Ron, calling from his office in the second tower. "Sweets, I'm ok. I'm ok. Don't worry. It's not my building," he said. Kristen didn't know what he was saying. He told her to turn on the television. He continued. "I see them. They're right there. Right across from me. And they're jumping. My God, they're jumping." The call ended abruptly and Kristen watched with horror as the second tower exploded. A huge, brilliant, red fireball.

In that frozen instant, she felt in her heart that he had been killed. This is the deeply personal, often shocking and ultimately inspirational story of a woman left to pick up the pieces of a life shattered by terrorism. With no husband by her side or father for her child, Kristen had to find the strength within herself to embark on a journey that would lead first to the creation of the 9/11 Commission and then to her role as one of the country's most outspoken activists and critics of the current administration.


To Caroline, because your smiles, your giggles, and
your bug-hugs inspire me to never give up.

And to the moon and stars who follow me always and
give me a reason to look up and smile.


Mindy, Patty, Lorie, and Monica—the girls—I would not be alive today without our friendship. You have taught me how to survive and how to fight. How to laugh. How to be strong. And how to cry. Together, we have achieved so much. I am so very deeply proud to have you as my closest and truest friends.

Sara—my best non-widow friend—you keep me grounded with your sparkling wit and enthusiasm. If there was ever a name that meant both little sister and very best friend, that name would be you, Sara.

Dad and Gail—for the many, many times that you came through for me with your simple advice, your babysitting and dogsitting, or just providing for Caroline and me a place to call our home.

Judy Lynn—my sister—I can never repay you for having the strength in times when I had none. You carried me through.

Mom-Mom—my grandmother—for teaching me about the most important things in life . . . because of you, I will always have a lilac bush under my bedroom window.

Gail—your advice, support, and guidance are the very best. But your friendship means the world to both Caroline and me.

The Siller family—you are like a family to Caroline and me. Thank you for everything that you do for us and for truly giving Caroline her second home.

Jamie Raab—my editor—you are the best publisher/editor/ friend a person could have. Thank you for keeping me motivated and inspired by your never-ending support for this book.

Laura Palmer—thank you for helping me get out of the starting gates and keeping me on track. Without you I might never have started writing this book.

Monika—thank you for taking such good care of my two most prized possessions on this earth, Caroline and Cooper.

And for Mom and Ron—thank you for being Caroline's angels and my conscience.


Where to begin. Well, I am going to work under the assumption that you know that you are dead and that you might not know why. Explaining why you were murdered, how it happened, and what has happened to our world since that horrific day is a long story.

But first I want to tell you that Caroline, Sam, and I are okay. Caroline talks about you often. Yes, she talks. I know that must seem unbelievable to you, because when you were killed she was two and a half and suffering from speech delays. Well, she talks now—she talks a lot. We still have speech issues, but for the most part she is a happy and healthy five-year-old girl.

What is most important for you to know about your little girl, our little doodlebug, is that she still smiles and giggles all the time. Ron, she is so happy. She continues to be our little sunshine. I tell her stories about you all the time. I tell her that when she was a tiny infant you would walk around the house with her when she couldn't sleep and sing her the "birthday song" because you didn't know any lullabies. I tell her that when she would awake during the night you rubbed her back until she fell off to sleep. I tell her how we used to walk on the beach with Sam and take him swimming—even in winter. And of course I tell her how we so loved our walks together in the woods.

Caroline is no longer shy. Remember how she would never let people hold her and our friends and family worried that she was too attached to us? Well, that has changed. She has become a very confident, outgoing, and adaptable little girl. Her hair is long and blond. Her face is exactly like yours. When I look at her, I see all of you in her. And, although it makes me sad that you are not here to see her, on some level I have to believe that you are keeping an eye on her and getting such a kick out of how she dances through life. There were moments early on when she would look up to the ceiling or look out the window and giggle. It was as if she was seeing something, someone. I hoped it was you. Was it, Sweets?

She loves to play dress-up; her favorite is a fairy princess. She's athletic, too, and adores riding horses. You'd be so proud to see her sit up straight on the horse and concentrate on riding. Her soccer team has only boys—she scored three goals last week. And she is learning how to read; her favorite book for now is Green Eggs and Ham.

She tells people without even really knowing them, "My daddy's dead." Very matter-of-fact. I guess that is what happens to you when your father dies and you have to share it with the whole world. It becomes a cold reality. She is too young to realize the startling impact this has on people when so bluntly delivered by such a little girl who for all intents looks "normal." I guess, for her, she doesn't quite know what it is to have a daddy, so she cannot understand the devastating meaning behind having a "dead daddy." All she knows is that her "dad" is an image trapped inside a photo.

For a while, all of the photos around the house of the two of you confused her. She kept looking at the pictures and realized that she was a baby in all of them. In her little mind, she thought that if she were a baby again, you would exist again. Consequently, she spent some weeks behaving like a baby. I finally asked her why she was behaving that way and she said, "If I am a baby, Daddy will come back." She ran and got a picture of you with her and said, "See, I am a baby. That's Daddy. If I am a baby, I will see Daddy again. Daddy will come back."

Yes, Ron, we have many, many conversations like this. Conversations that rip out my heart, leaving me bewildered, speechless, and searching for answers. And I know that at some point I might not have those answers or "fixes" to make our little girl feel better. And that is what my life is like. I worry about the future. I worry about not having answers that will make Caroline feel safe and secure.

For now, though, I am still getting away with dodging Caroline's increasing curiosity about what happened to you. I give her vague answers that sound reassuring. I do my best. Often I will have tears in my eyes as I talk to her about you. Noticing my sadness and tears, Caroline instinctively cradles my face in her hands and says, "No, it's okay, Daddy is in heaven and I can see him in the moon."

Yes, Sweets, she thinks that you are in heaven and that you live on the moon and amongst the stars. She often asks if she can go visit you. I try to explain to her that she cannot go to heaven because once she goes, she cannot come back. And then this goes into a very convoluted conversation that leaves me searching for even more answers. It's hard to explain to her that there are no visitors in heaven, and that if she goes there, she has to stay. Caroline promises and promises me that she'd come back after her visit but that she just wants to see you, her daddy.

Every night she looks to find the moon in the sky. She confidently finds it and says, "That's where my daddy is." Depending on her mood that day, she either shouts or whispers, "Mommy, Mommy! There's the moon. I see Daddy. I love you, Daddy. I love you!" as she blows kisses up to the night sky.

The last three years have transformed me in many ways. I have learned how to live as a single mother and as an activist. I don't know which transformation has been more difficult to undertake. I didn't really have a choice in either one. And neither transformation has been easy. For example, what is harder: staring down the director of the FBI and catching him in a flat-out lie or looking Caroline in the eyes and trying to tell her that not all planes are meant to crash into buildings?

I am still learning how to raise our little girl without you in her life, just as I am still learning how to be a fully engaged and better American citizen. I have learned how to fight Washington and win small battles, just as I have learned how to answer some of Caroline's less probing questions about what happened to you and why you died. In truth, I am scared of the many things I have learned in the past three years while marching through the halls of Washington. I am scared of the many questions that don't seem to have answers.

Sweets, my "wake-up" call came in the form of your being senselessly murdered by hijackers flying planes into your office building. I doubt that I will ever feel totally safe again in any environment. How can I, when steel turns to dust and all that is left of you are your two arms and your small gold wedding band?

But your wedding ring, that small shiny gold band scratched yet still perfectly round and intact, was found in that horrific pile of death and destruction by rescue workers—just normal men and women working their hearts and guts out for the pride of our country. And, sweetheart, I look at your wedding band as a symbol. Much like it was found buried beneath the smoldering rubble and ruins, I believe our country is buried somewhere beneath the current chaos, waiting to be discovered, so it, too, can shine again.

—December 2004

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.

—attributed to Edmund Burke


A Love Affair That Almost Never Happened

AS RON TOLD IT, he first saw me in 1994 while I was playing beach volleyball at the Jersey Shore. He said he'd had his eye on me from that very instant. I, on the other hand, was completely oblivious to his presence. In those early days, I wouldn't have paid much attention to him because he simply was not my type. Blond, strong, and blue-eyed, Ron was the straitlaced, wholesome all-American guy—a Fourth of July parade, complete with bursting fireworks.

That same summer, I was hanging out with a close-knit group of friends and we had a regular routine. Our summer life revolved around sunbathing, playing beach volleyball, surfing, and partying. We would religiously arrive at the beach by 10:00 A.M., eat breakfast, which usually included ham, egg, and cheese sandwiches and cheese fries, apply our sunblock, line up the volleyball schedule, and gossip about the parties that had taken place the night before. Sometime around five o'clock, the mass exodus from the shoreline would begin. Everyone would filter slowly off the beach, drop their beach chairs on the front lawn of the small beach bar called the Yankee Clipper, and walk inside barefoot to grab a plate of nachos and a few Long Island iced teas. Everybody knew everybody else. It was a small, exclusive club of friends. Everyone was tanned, gorgeous, and looking to have fun.

The Yankee Clipper was an institution. You could feel the gritty floor underfoot—a combination of dropped peanut shells, spilled alcohol, and vagrant sand. The bar smelled like cocoa butter and suntan lotion. The music was always the same—cheesy, upbeat, and happy. When songs like "Rockin' Robin," "Sweet Caroline," or "Margaritaville" were played, everybody drunkenly chimed in. Arms were wrapped around waists of the people standing next to you. Haphazard conga lines would form. And every evening would end with the same last song: "The Summer Wind" by Frank Sinatra.

Around 11:00 P.M. what we called "the crawl" would begin. The crawl was the long walk either home, to the next bar, or to a private party at someone's beachfront home. Buzzed, sunburned, and feeling the cool ocean breeze on our faces, we would stumble along still barefoot, covered in sand, and wearing our bathing suits. There were no fancy outfits, no designer handbags, and nobody spent time primping and fussing with their hair. Baseball caps, cut-off shorts, and wrinkled linen shirts were all we needed for our three-month "come as you are party."

It was the summer after my first year in law school, right before I was leaving for Europe, when I first met Ron. I was drinking with a group of friends at the Yankee Clipper, and each time one of my friends or I finished a drink, the waitress appeared with another. And another. And another. As the evening wore on, so did the mystery as to who was sending over all of our drinks. The waitress soon began bringing over trays of shots and handing them to everyone. She continued to bring tray after tray after tray. It was verging on the ridiculous. Finally I asked who was sending over the drinks. She told me she was sworn to secrecy, but that our mysterious benefactor was in the bar and an admirer of mine. I was spooked, uncomfortable, and, frankly, wanted to leave immediately. My friends were intrigued and insisted that we stay—in truth, they were just enjoying all the free drinks.

Sometime after midnight, a very inebriated guy showed up with a tray of drinks. He knocked into me, nearly spilling the entire tray. He was pretty drunk. I looked at him, annoyed, and asked him if I could help him out with anything. He righted himself, looked me straight in the eye, and stammered: "I just want you to know I love you." Ron Breitweiser had spoken his first words to me. He was drunk, his eyes were bloodshot, and he was barely standing. All I wanted to do was to get away from him.

Nervously I looked over to the waitress, who pointed to him knowingly. I looked back at Ron as he stumbled some more and asked, "Will you go out on a date with me?" Quite put off by his forwardness and his drunkenness, I brushed him off by saying that I was leaving for Europe the next day, not to return until the end of the summer. I then turned to my friend Paul and asked him to walk me to my car. My only hope was that the crazy drunk guy (I still didn't know his name) would think I was dating Paul and leave me alone. Paul smiled at me, whispered into my ear, draped his arm around my waist, and ushered me out of the bar. The next afternoon I got on the plane and flew to the south of France to study law.

Deciding to take a summer abroad and study in Aix-en-Provence was one of my better law school decisions. It lightened my load for the following semester back at Seton Hall, and it provided me with an excellent opportunity to travel throughout Europe. Ironically, among the classes I took that summer was "Terrorism and International Law." It wasn't anything I was drawn to; it just happened to fit into my schedule. Since we had classes only three days a week, there was plenty of time to take off and travel. I spent the rest of my summer biking around Provence, rock-climbing and glacier skiing in Switzerland, hiking in the French Alps, swimming along the coasts of the Italian and French Mediterranean, and partying all night long before the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

Returning home, I started my second year of law school. It was rigorous, but I always liked the challenge of being a student with a goal to achieve. I wasn't sure I wanted to be a lawyer—as an undergraduate I'd been drawn to the sciences and dreamed about being an astrophysicist or even a neurosurgeon. But the many years of training and medical residencies that a medical degree required made me feel restless and impatient. Law school felt like a smarter and much more practical choice. Besides that, I liked the idea of having three more years of educational structure—I knew it would give me more time to grow up before having to settle down and get a real job.

It was the fall of my second year in law school when Ron's and my paths crossed again. I'd been partying with my law school friends in Hoboken, New Jersey, and we decided to spend the rest of the night clubbing in Manhattan. Ron was a few years older than I, and he was already working on Wall Street. According to Ron, who told me the story of our encounter afterwards, it was on this night that he saw me stumbling through the PATH station with my law school pals. When he told me the story, I didn't believe him until he described what I was wearing and the people I was with. Once reminded of the occasion, I did recall the random night of partying (but not Ron), because it turned out to be an outrageously fun night and one of the rare occasions when my law school friends and I ventured into Manhattan. When Ron recounted to me how he had seen me that evening it struck me as strange, but more so, it struck me as fate. Now it gives me chills because I think about how serendipitous it was to run into Ron in the subway station of the World Trade Center on a night when I was out partying happily with my friends. If only he had known or I had known or anyone had known that so many years later thousands of people would perish in that very spot.

Six months later, Ron and I crossed paths again, but not by coincidence. He had finagled my phone number from a colleague at the law firm where I was clerking that summer. Ron called up cold—totally out of the blue. He first introduced himself as the guy from the Yankee Clipper who'd told me that he loved me. This immediately spooked me. Annoyed that one of my work colleagues would be so stupid as to give Ron my phone number, I was curt with him on the phone. Ron then began to tell me that he had seen me in the WTC/PATH train station that fall. I began to wonder if this guy was stalking me. Ron then asked about law school and whether I had a boyfriend. Wanting desperately to brush him off at this point, I told him that I had several—which wasn't exactly a lie. Completely undeterred, Ron asked me for a date. I declined. Hanging up the phone, I hoped that would put a stop to the pesky stalker named Ron Breitweiser.

But Ron was persistent. He would periodically call or send flowers. He seemed to pop up constantly wherever I was. I guess his persistence was a survival skill for him. Growing up in a rigidly Catholic family without any advantages, Ron knew that if he was going to make a life different from his parents, he'd have to blaze his own trail. He went to the University of Delaware and majored in business. He didn't get an MBA after college, he got a job. Hard work and perseverance were his ways of competing with those who had the privileges of wealth, class, and Ivy League educations. He got his first job by writing a letter to a man on Wall Street who'd written a book Ron admired. The man invited Ron to lunch, and by the time it was over, Ron had his first job. All he needed was a chance to prove himself.

I had several great guy friends in law school who were like older brothers to me. When Ron's persistence about dating me became an annoyance during the winter of my third year of school, I asked the boys what I should do. "Go out with him. Chain-smoke, suck down straight vodka, and act obnoxious." The boys assured me that the only way I was going to get rid of the "stalker" was to scare him away. Armed with my new strategy, I accepted the next time Ron asked me out.

We went to dinner at a crusty Irish pub named Harrigan's. When the waitress came to take our order, I told Ron I didn't eat and hoped he wouldn't mind if I continued to smoke. Ron was a militant antismoker. He was disgusted with my constant inhaling, and he didn't hide his utter disdain. I felt like my plan was working. I ordered another vodka on the rocks with two limes and then another. I lit another cigarette from the one I was about to extinguish. Ron tried to make conversation, but I refused to engage with him at any level. When he asked if I ever wanted to get married, I made it crystal clear to him that I had no interest in ever getting married or having children. Ron ate. I smoked and swilled vodka, playing the part of the ultimate bitch to perfection.

Unbelievably, the next day Ron sent me flowers and called to thank me for accompanying him to dinner. He was more than cordial. I was stunned. I'd expected never to hear from him again. Finally I ended the conversation by thanking him for the flowers and telling him that I was so immersed in my final year of law school that it would be impossible for me to even consider seeing him again. Ron left me alone for a while. I thought my plan had worked.

I graduated from Seton Hall Law School in May of 1996 and immediately began studying for the bar exam. One night at the Parker House, another favorite beach-bar hangout of mine, I was taking a much-needed study break with some of my law school friends. On my way to the ladies' room, I quite literally ran into Ron. I apologized for crashing into him.

As I looked up, I saw his blue eyes looking back at me and his amazingly huge, bright smile. He gushed, "Wow! How are you? Remember me?" I stumbled, took a step backwards, threw a quick smile, and said, "Sure. How are you? Would love to talk, but I'm just leaving." I used the bar exam and the studying I had to do as my excuse for rushing away.

The New Jersey bar exam was four or five weeks away. In the interim, Ron did his detective work and found out the date of the exam. He was hatching another plan. When I returned home after the two-day exam, I found a huge double bouquet of long-stemmed red roses on my doorstep with a note that said: Hope you did well on the bar exam. Ron. For the first time, Ronald Breitweiser had caught me off guard—in a nice way, something that rarely happened to me.

My aunt and my best friend, Paul, came over and saw the enormous bouquet. I asked them what they thought I should do. My aunt said, "Give him a shot." Paul agreed. They looked at me, laughed, and said simultaneously: "He is persistent." I called to see if the florist had Ron's number.

She said Ron was hoping I would call and had told her it was okay to give me his number. I immediately called to thank him for the flowers and he immediately asked me out to dinner. I hesitated. He said, "Come on, you have to. Today is my birthday." It was August 4, 1996.

This time I actually put some effort into getting ready and wore something other than my usual uniform of jeans and a little white T-shirt. When Ron arrived, I was in a short, simple black dress and flat black sandals. He was wearing ripped jeans and a wrinkled blue shirt that looked like it was plucked straight out of the laundry bag. I was incredulous. "This is how you dress to take me out on a date? On your birthday? Are you joking? Couldn't you have at least ironed your shirt?"

Immediately, I decided to change into something more casual. As I was threw on my own pair of ripped Levi's and wrinkled shirt, I was thinking that he was clueless, totally clueless. Ron stayed in the kitchen chatting with my grandmother about working in New York City. She and my aunt told him that he was crazy to work in such a filthy, dangerous place. They asked him why he wanted to work in the city. There was so much crime and it was so stressful. Did he really want to commute every day? The World Trade Center had been bombed three years before, on February 26, 1993. My grandmother asked Ron what he would do if something like that happened in his building. "I'll tell you what I would do. I'd run like hell and get outta there."

We said good-bye to my family and drove to his parents' house, which was about an hour away, to have birthday cake. I should have realized the significance of meeting Ron's family on our first date. But I was oblivious. Ron had told his family, particularly his older sister, a lot about me. So when I walked into their home I felt very much under the microscope and uncomfortable.

We finally left his parents and drove to a quiet Italian restaurant. During dinner, the conversation was playful and easy. Ron confessed to me that he thought I'd been a real bitch the first time we went out. I said that I had been trying to make him leave me alone. He smiled broadly and beamed, asking, "Aren't you glad I didn't?" I answered him honestly: "Yeah. Actually, I am glad you didn't let me scare you away."

Early the next morning, I stopped at a farm stand and picked out a huge sunflower and placed it in an Evian water bottle. The night before, I'd learned that Ron was training to be in the Golden Gloves, an amateur boxing competition. After the farm stand I stopped at a card store and found a vintage postcard with a photo of a small blond-haired boy with boxing gloves on his hands. On the back of the card I wrote, Thanks for being persistent. I drove over to the beach house Ron had rented for the summer and left the sunflower and the card on his back doorstep. From that moment on, we were inseparable.

Ron was working in the city, and I was living on the Jersey Shore. By the end of our second month of dating, in September 1996, Ron had moved in with me at my aunt's guest cottage and was commuting to New York City every morning by bus. It was a romantic whirlwind. Every week Ron sent me two huge bouquets of flowers. One went to the courthouse where I was a judicial clerk, and another was sent home. He left me little notes and cards in my brief bag, in the car, on the mirror in the bathroom, and even on the container of half-and-half I used for my morning coffee.

Ron had discovered a very romantic side of himself. When we couldn't see each other, we talked for hours on the phone. After we watched a movie, Ron would brainstorm to figure out a romantic follow-up related to the movie. After seeing Braveheart with Mel Gibson, Ron bought an antique white lace handkerchief and a flower similar to the one Mel Gibson receives from his love in the movie. Ron wrapped the flower in the handkerchief and left it on my pillow one evening. After we saw Message in a Bottle, I opened the refrigerator three mornings later and found an antique blue bottle with a note from him inside.

But probably the most romantic thing he did was on our first Valentine's Day. We had gone out for a romantic dinner and he gave me a beautiful bracelet from Tiffany that was classic—just what I liked. I hardly expected anything more. When we arrived home, a trail of at least a thousand rose petals made a path lit by small votive candles from the front door to the bedroom. I was overwhelmed. We had left the house in darkness and returned to find it aglow. (Later I learned that my grandmother and aunt did the decorating while we were at dinner.)

When I walked into the bedroom, I found even more rose petals strewn on the bed in the shape of a heart. And sticking out of the covers, propped up on a pile of pillows, was a huge surfboard (my dream surfboard) with a big smiley face that Ron had drawn in bright red lipstick. I gushed. I turned and realized how completely in love I was with this man. The thousands of rose petals, the flickering candles, and the bracelet from Tiffany were all wonderful and certainly touched aspects of me. But the surfboard with the big, bright, silly smile drawn on it was pure me. It was cute, romantic, and fun. Ron had dazzled me with the perfect gift for Valentine's Day.

After we started dating, one of Ron's friends told me about a conversation she had had with Ron several years before Ron and I had officially met. They were at a beach bar hanging out with a group of people and the conversation turned to marriage. Ron announced that he was never going to do it. He was tired of women looking for successful husbands to marry. In fact, when women approached him and asked him what he did for a living, Ron told them that he worked in a cannery. It was his litmus test. If the woman walked away immediately, he knew she wasn't the woman for him. When pushed and prodded by the girls in his crowd who kept telling him that he had to get married someday, he'd finally pointed to me across the crowded beach bar and said, "Okay, I'd get married if a girl like that would marry me."


On Sale
Sep 6, 2006
Page Count
304 pages

Kristen Breitweiser

About the Author

Kristen Breitweiser, 9/11 widow and activist, is known for pressuring official Washington to provide a public accounting to the American people of what went wrong on the morning of September 11 and in the months leading up to the disaster that claimed the life of her husband and more than 3000 others.

Learn more about this author