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9/11 widow recounts her role as an activist

In her new book, “Wake-Up Call,” Kristen Breitweiser tells how the terrorist attacks transformed her from a stay-at-home mom into a government critic,
/ Source: TODAY

Kristen Breitweiser went from wife to widow on the morning of 9/11. The events of that horrific day spurred the stay-at-home mother to become an outspoken activist — a role she never imagined for herself. A former Republican, Breitweiser, along with three other 9/11 widows (known to the media as the “Jersey Girls”), called for the creation of the 9/11 Commission, in face of strong opposition. Breitweiser has written a book about here experiences, “Wake-Up Call: The Education of a 9/11 Widow.” She was invited on “Today” to discuss her book. Read an excerpt:

Chapter one
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.

Excerpted from “Wake-Up Call,” by Kristen Breitweiser. Copyright © 2006 by Kristen Breitweiser. Excerpted by permission of Warner Books, a division All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.