NEW YORK CITY – Charles G. Wolf sits on a bench in a cavernous hall, his white- and pink-hued shirt popping out against his purposely subdued surroundings. Behind him looms a tall wall made of gray concrete that matches the color of his hair.
Rows of anchor heads jut from the wall, but they’re connected to nothing. Nothing but a tragic and sad and heroic chapter in time that tore apart the lives of people like Wolf, and also positioned him – an otherwise regular guy from Buffalo who built his adult life in New York City – to become a voice, a leader and a difference-maker.
“The work is over,” said Wolf, reflecting back on the 14 years he’s spent as an advocate for the families of the people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks both here and in Washington.
One of the nearly 3,000 people who died was his wife, Katherine. She was his best friend, his business partner, and the first woman to ever look in his eyes and say, “I love you.” Those were their exact parting words at 8:06 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when Katherine Wolf left their Greenwich Village apartment, headed to her office a mile away in the World Trade Center’s north tower, without a sense that a half-hour later, a plane would slam directly into the 97th floor where she worked, instantly ending her life and transforming that of the husband she left behind.
Fourteen years after the attacks, memories of 9/11 are woven into history. Kids who learned about it in their middle- and high-school classrooms are now old enough to be teachers themselves. Today’s middle-schoolers weren’t even born when it happened. Movies have been made. Conspiracy theories have been spun, debunked, or translated into lore. A memorial has been erected and a museum has been built, right here in Manhattan, underneath the site formerly known as ground zero.
This is where Wolf sits now, with a slice of the original slurry wall that protected the World Trade Center from the Hudson River visible over his shoulder. The anchors are gone from that slurry wall, which now stands in the 9/11 Museum as a relic of the original complex. Wolf talks about his efforts to make sure victims’ families were compensated properly, and that the development of the memorial and museum was handled respectfully. Wolf, with other advocates, accomplished those goals. That sense of success is why he sits in the museum, which opened in May 2014, and says, “For all intents and purposes, the large work is over.”
Now it’s time for Wolf to focus on the smaller details of life. Like his own healing and recovery. For the last 14 years, his own goals and dreams – ones he shared with Katherine, ones that ranged from building a lucrative sales business to replacing the old, gray carpet in their studio apartment – have been on hold. But no more.
“Now, the carpet must be changed,” Wolf says. “It must be changed.”
Wolf, 61, grew up in Tonawanda and Buffalo until age 10, when his father got a job in Indiana. He returned to upstate New York to attend college at the Rochester Institute of Technology and gained entry into Eastman Kodak’s sales training program. In December 1978, Kodak sent Wolf to New York as a sales representative for its photography division, a job he held for the next 14 years, before leaving and focusing full time on his Amway direct-sales business.
An avid singer who’ll publicly break into song when the mood strikes him, Wolf was a member of the Village Light Opera Group. In July 1988, when a cast of musicians from England visited New York to perform with his group, Wolf met a 27-year-old woman with “Welsh red hair,” a T-shirt, long skirt, wide belt and a sweetly courteous British accent. At first, they talked for less than a minute, but Wolf was smitten with this young pianist named Katherine. He took her to a show, took her to church, even took her on a helicopter tour of Manhattan, unwittingly upsetting her when he reached back to touch her leg – not because of the contact, but because she hadn’t shaved.
After the helicopter ride, Wolf gave Katherine a hug.
“I have never felt anything like that in my life – her arms; it was eee-lec-tric-i-ty,” he said, punctuating each syllable. “I mean, just, wow.”
The next weekend, one day before Katherine was returning to England, Wolf looked her and said, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Katherine said.
That was the first time a woman said those words to Wolf.
One year later, they were married.
Together, the Wolfs built a simple, sweet life with big dreams. An entrepreneurial type and gifted speaker, Charles put those skills to work building his Amway network, selling home and health products and training other people to sell as well. Katherine worked full time as an executive assistant and helped with Amway on the side. They had visions of building the business into something big, sprucing up their lives, eating out at night, and of course, replacing the tired gray carpet.
“She was right about here, the west side, four windows in from the center,” Wolf said.
He points to a picture of the towers inside the 9/11 Museum. Around 8,000 people visit the museum daily. A handful of them – many with kids too young to have experienced 9/11 firsthand – are in earshot. As they pick up on Wolf’s personal connection – he’s not just a curious visitor – their heads begin to turn.
“The plane came in like this,” moving his hand at an angle. “I figure that she was about as far from the wingtip, and the fuel load, as we are from the exit sign right there.”
He points to a wall that’s about 15 feet away and inhales deeply.
Wolf seems to talk about 9/11 with ease; he’s told his story to reporters, at hearings, at town halls, in letters, in editorials. He’s well-practiced at it, but it’s still not easy for him. On this morning 14 years ago, Wolf was still in his apartment when he heard a loud sound overhead. Wolf, who has piloted smaller aircraft, recognized it as a plane. Moments later, at 8:45 a.m., he heard a boom. He rushed out of his apartment and looked downtown. Plumes of smoke and fire spewed from the north tower of the trade center.
Within less than two hours, the second tower was also hit and both buildings collapsed. Wolf ate dinner alone that night, trying to make sense of his new, solo world.
That Friday, three days after the attack, Wolf attended a meeting in midtown Manhattan for families of Katherine’s employer, the insurance and professional services firm Marsh & McLennan.
“Regardless of what you may have heard in the media, nobody escaped above the 91st floor,” said a silver-haired executive who was running the meeting.
Wolf, his head in his hands, thought to himself, “She’s gone.”
Then inspiration struck. Wolf stood up, introduced himself without a microphone and pointed out that the heat of the jet fuel and impact of a 2½-story plane striking the tower meant that Katherine and her co-workers were almost certainly killed instantly.
“As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “our people were vaporized.”
The whole room gasped.
“Like a Greek chorus,” Wolf recalls.
“We need to thank our lucky stars that they didn’t need to make a decision to stay and burn or jump,” he said.
With that, Wolf sat back down, putting his head back in his hands. As the meeting ended, a woman with a thick Boston accent introduced herself as a grief counselor.
“I want to thank you,” she said. “I wish you’d been here for every meeting. These people needed to hear that.”
Telling people what they needed to hear – politely but bluntly – has been the hallmark of Wolf’s work as a 9/11 family advocate. Through interviews, writing, speeches and online campaigns, he has fought for the proper treatment of victim remains, assistance for families, and respectful redevelopment of the former World Trade Center site.
“He’s been one of the most influential people to us from a counsel perspective,” says Michael Frazier, an executive vice president for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, “from a voice of reason.”
Reason, and when Wolf feels it’s warranted, extreme honesty. In the early days after the attack, Wolf was unhappy with the rules of the government-run September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and with the attitude of the man who ran it, the politically powerful Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg. Wolf started a website, fixthefund.org, on which he referred to Feinberg as “patronizing, manipulative and at times, even cruel.” He did the same in multiple town hall meetings in New York, Long Island and Washington.
“I would say I saw him more than other victim advocates,” Feinberg told The News in a telephone interview this week from his Washington office.
Wolf’s message worked: Feinberg realized that his lawyerly wording – “my legal style, my formal legalisms in addressing individual claimants” – needed to be softened into language that was more “empathetic, sensitive and understanding” when addressing families whose lives were impaled by tragedy.
“He certainly had an impact on me,” said Feinberg, who has since overseen or advised several victim funds, including one for people affected by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
As Wolf saw the changes enacted, he publicly applauded Feinberg.
Wolf changed the title of his website to “The Fund is Fixed!” and in November 2003 applied for compensation from the fund. As he submitted that paperwork, Wolf also sent Feinberg a letter (also posted on the site) in which he wrote, “Today, I have complete faith in you,” and later added, “I can truly and literally put my future in your hands.”
“Charles went from being one of my most caustic critics to being one of my fervent supporters,” Feinberg says.
Today, with most of those highly public problems untangled and the events of Sept. 11, 2001, a piece of the past, Wolf’s 9/11 work is mostly taking out-of-town guests to the outdoor memorial, where he always kisses Katherine’s name, and guiding them through the museum. There’s a lawsuit happening overseas, but for the most part, the time for lawyers and battles is over.
Wolf is now focusing on himself and his dreams, the ones he started – but never finished – so many years ago.
“I have to remind myself, ‘You can do things now,’ ” he said, but it’s tougher.
His 9/11 work became roughly equivalent to a full-time job, leaving little time or emotional capacity to build his Amway business. He kept it running, but not growing, and it’s time to rebuild.
Living only a mile from the trade center site has affected his health, Wolf says. In the last seven years, he’s battled sickness and fatigue that he believes stems from years of breathing in toxic chemicals sent airborne by the destruction of the towers. He’s dedicated himself to a regimen of alternative medicine and homeopathic treatments designed to squeeze those bad chemicals out of his glands and revive his health and energy.
Wolf hopes to fall in love again. It happened for a time: From 2003 to 2005, he dated a woman who lived across the street, and fell in love with both her and her young sons. But she ended that relationship and is now married to another man and has two more kids. (They keep in touch; she sent Wolf a congratulatory message when Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.)
It’s hard. It’s all hard. Wolf has been effective in the 14 years since he kissed his wife goodbye at 8:06 a.m., but health, dreams, love – and even changing that old carpet? Pure, unfiltered happiness?
Those things are more elusive.
“I lost my best friend,” Wolf said. “I lost my companion. I lost my business partner. I just had that yanked away.”
A tear wells. Wolf takes a breath.
“You know, I’m carrying on,” he said, “but I do have to get the carpet changed.”