Firefighter's 9/11 death changes life;

Mother dedicated to seeking answers

Copyright 2002 The Chronicle Publishing Co.
The San Francisco Chronicle...09/10/2002

Ken Garcia

There was something about Christian Regenhard's free-spirited nature that attracted him to San Francisco. He liked the openness, the culture. For him, the city was a place filled with wonder and adventure.

Just thinking about the joy he found in the city brings his mother, Sally Regenhard, to tears.

All those fun times he wrote to her about -- the days on Strawberry Hill, bicycling around Haight Street, painting the local scenery. They were times that seemed so carefree, so innocent, and are now such painful memories for her.

Wednesday marks the anniversary of the worst day in Sally Regenhard's life -- the day Christian Regenhard, who had left San Francisco to become a firefighter in Ladder Company 131 in Red Hook, N.Y., rushed into the World Trade Center shortly before its horrifying collapse.

The fall of the twin towers was an event so mystifying that hundreds of experts still cannot fully explain how it could have happened or why. And Regenhard's anger and anguish have spurred her to demand answers.

Her work on behalf of the families of the twin towers' nearly 3,000 victims has transformed her into a national spokeswoman for reforms in structural safety.

"My son was sent into the building that day with no plan, no guidance, and with radios that didn't even work," Regenhard told me from her Bronx home last week. "He was, in effect, sent to his certain death, and nobody is taking responsibility for it. So now the purpose of my life is to find out the truth about why the World Trade Center collapsed and make sure something like that never happens again."

The systematic problems relating to the collapse of the towers have been well-documented. They ranged from the choice of material surrounding its steel beams -- cheaper fire-retardant foam instead of heavy-duty masonry -- to a design that allowed more open office space per floor, meaning there was nothing to prevent fires from engulfing entire floors, to the failure of the buildings' sprinkler systems to engage after the planes hit them.

These revelations increased Regenhard's grief, but they also stirred her intent to reform building codes and regulations nationwide to make skyscrapers safer than the giant towers. Along with Monica Gabrielle, whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center, Regenhard co-founded the Skyscraper Safety Campaign and has been tirelessly traveling the country demanding ways to make buildings stronger.

Last month, Regenhard won a major victory when she helped persuade federal authorities to begin a two-year inquiry into the design and destruction of the World Trade Center. The investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology will be modeled after those conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board when looking into airline disasters.

But Regenhard, who is scheduled to be part of Tom Brokaw's nationally televised town hall meeting Wednesday afternoon, says the safety board study isn't nearly enough. That's why she is pushing relentlessly for the passage of the National Construction Safety Act, which would give federal investigators subpoena power in a building disaster and provide them with unlimited access to gather crucial evidence. Those powers are not available to investigators of the World Trade Center collapse, and, incredibly, much of the evidence -- contained in the smashed steel of the buildings -- has been sold off by the state of New York for recycling.

"Fighting for these reforms is the only thing that has kept me alive," Regenhard said. "The lives of so many families were destroyed on that day, and yet there is still so much government denial about these issues. We cannot allow for 3,000 people to have died in vain. I cannot for a minute consider the thought that my son died in vain."

Before Christian moved back to New York to become a firefighter, he spent several years exploring the joys of the Bay Area, studying fine arts at San Francisco State University, rock climbing, scuba diving, bicycling. He fell in love with the region after spending five years stationed at various Marine bases in California -- Camp Pendleton, Twentynine Palms, San Diego -- and discovered that San Francisco was a perfect place to try to establish himself as an artist and writer.

Regenhard, who has a lifelong fear of flying, never visited her son here. After Sept. 11, she put aside her fears and made the trip, visiting her son's San Francisco friends, his old apartment on Carl Street and some of the sights he so loved.

The trip also allowed her to meet with local firefighters whom she is trying to engage in her fight. She has enlisted former San Francisco Fire Chief Andy Casper to join her organization's advisory committee, and he has testified in Congress on her group's behalf.

Christian Regenhard, who had been a New York City firefighter for only six weeks when he died, was described as a very funny, charismatic person by friends, of which he seemed to have plenty. His memorial service at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York drew 3,000 people.

His first day on the job as a firefighter coincided with his father's last day as a detective inspector after 39 years in the New York Police Department.

"I thought that was a great day," Sally Regenhard said.

Now, her world shattered, she wishes it had never happened.

"The World Trade Center should have never collapsed. I can't accept it," she said. "My beautiful son was an innocent victim, and I want people to know what happened to him."

E-mail Ken Garcia at kgarcia@sfchronicle.com.



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