Fighting for the Underlying Meaning of Ground Zero
Published: August 12, 2005

HER paper-strewn home office in Westchester is, Debra Burlingame admits as she leaves the pristine living room and plunks herself, sandaled feet and all, atop a floral sofa, a pigsty, "but it's my pigsty."

"To me, they're treating 9/11 like a 3,000-person car crash." Debra Burlingame
It is also a shrine to her dead brother, Charles F. Burlingame III, the pilot of the hijacked American Airlines jet that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, but she insists she does not want family memorabilia photographed. Not the shadow box holding a shell casing from the 21-gun salute at his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Not the poster-size photo of him at 6, proudly displaying a plane he built from scrap lumber.

Nor does she want her hometown revealed. She has enemies, or at least her opinion about the proper destiny of ground zero has enemies. She and other bereaved relatives believe only a memorial and a museum dedicated to telling the story of 9/11, untainted by political or artistic commentary the way they fear the proposed International Freedom Center and Drawing Center might be, are appropriate. There is a brand new computer on her desk, she says, because she suspects someone sabotaged the last one.

Three tart opinion articles she wrote recently for The Wall Street Journal - aside from an irate letter to the editor of Glamour magazine while she was a lawyer representing foster care parents, they are her first published bylines - question the Lower Manhattan Development Commission's intentions at ground zero, which she characterizes as real estate and commerce driven.

"To me, they're treating 9/11 like a 3,000-person car crash," says Ms. Burlingame, whose voice carries all the more clout for her being on the board of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. "They're trying to hijack the meaning of 9/11; we're trying to rescue it. It's not just a story of death and loss. It's a love story of human decency triumphing over human depravity."

Her public statements, and a Take Back The Memorial campaign ( ), also critique the very officials who endorsed her board appointment, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki. Yesterday, over the mayor's objection, but apparently with the governor's O.K., the commission threw the Freedom Center's tenancy into doubt: its curriculum will undergo further scrutiny next month. The Drawing Center is expected to move elsewhere.

"I feel like Mike Bloomberg could commit to the idea of turning ground zero into a playground for culture and art, put up a plaque with 3,000 names, and call that the memorial," she complains. "So I'm a thorn in their side."

Anyone expecting apologies from Ms. Burlingame, who plays a starring role (fitting for a Neighborhood Playhouse alumna) in the drama over the removal of the Freedom Center and Drawing Center, is in for a long wait.

"We're not saying boycott the memorial; we're saying, fill it with the story of 9/11, or get it off the site," she says. "Remember, there were 20,000 body parts strewn over this site." She believes she was recruited for the board expressly because her brother's body parts were not among them; thus, she would be more cooperative.

"You can imagine how they must regret that," she says. "Everything I've done in my life has prepared me for this. My acting made me comfortable with public speaking. Seven years as a flight attendant helped me understand what went on inside those planes. My legal background has been helpful all along, and it's going to be helpful when they try to kick me off the board!"

She graduated from Cardozo, practiced law for two years, and spent five years at Court TV before moving to Los Angeles to start a production company. She moved back to New York after 9/11 and in 2003 married Robert Fraina, a friend she had not seen in 20 years but reconnected with after he sent her a sympathy card.

Ms. Burlingame, 51, comes by her convictions the hard way: her idolized oldest brother murdered in the cockpit of his plane as it streaked toward the Pentagon, and later hearing a sickening replay on the flight's data recorder. Her brother, a Navy pilot for 8 years and a reservist for 17 more, would have turned 51 on Sept. 12, 2001, and had planned to celebrate his birthday eve at an Angels baseball game. Having spent their teenage years in Anaheim, Calif., the Burlingames were Angels fans.

It remains inconceivable that she is now older than he will ever be.

After her brother's death, Ms. Burlingame, who has a grown daughter from her first marriage, and her family lobbied hard, and publicly, to have him buried at Arlington, a courtesy denied them because he had retired as a reservist and was under 60. When the Army, which operates Arlington, turned them down, they took on the Pentagon with backup from Senator John Warner of Virginia.

"He warned us that we were taking on the Pentagon, the 800-pound gorilla, and we said, 'Bring it on,' " says Ms. Burlingame, brandishing a neatly manicured fist. "Not fighting for that honor would have been like letting the terrorists determine where he was going to be buried. When I talk to the 9/11 families about this battle we're in at the site, I tell them we're supposed to be fighting, and sometimes you have to walk the really hard road, but in the end, the outcome is sweeter than if it had just been green-lighted the whole way. This isn't about us; it's about doing the right thing."

Petition to Take Back The Memorial