Relatives of the victims of the 11 September attacks in the United States are being asked to share some of their most intimate and painful memories with prosecutors – including telephone answering machine recordings of their loved ones' last words – to assist in the first criminal trial arising from the atrocity.
Prosecutors want family members to testify in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the accused 20th hijacker. Mr Moussaoui was in jail in Minnesota for visa violations on 11 September, but is accused of conspiring with the other hijackers who crashed airliners into the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre.
Officials from the Justice Department began interviewing relatives in New York yesterday. The unusual request – the interview process is set to last all week – presents hundreds of grieving relatives with a painful dilemma. Many are anxious to help in imposing the maximum punishment on anyone connected to the attacks. But to testify would entail opening their deepest wounds to public scrutiny.
Mary Fetchet, for instance, treasures the few words her son, Bradley, 24, left on her answering machine from his desk on the 89th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Centre shortly before it collapsed. "You can hear everyone talking in the office in the background. He wasn't sure what they were doing. He was in tower two and said he saw someone drop from the 93rd floor in tower one," she recalled recently.
Ms Fetchet does not plan to offer the tape to prosecutors. "I think that it's too personal to hear that played in court," she said. But Barbara Minervino, who lost her husband, Louis, in the attacks, was among the many victims' relatives expected to turn up to be interviewed. She was planning to take her two daughters as well as pictures of Louis with her.
Ms Minervino and others who decide to assist the Justice Department may be called on to testify in the penalty phase of the trial, which would come after a conviction. The trial, which will be the first connected to the al-Qa'ida attacks on America, is expected to begin in September. A lawyer for the prosecution said: "We are simply trying to put forth our best case in support of our efforts to ensure that defendant Moussaoui is properly punished."
John Ashcroft, the US Attorney General, is expected to decide this week whether the death penalty will be sought in the case.
Another relative, Monica Iken, is also planning to volunteer to help with the trial. Her husband, Michael, 37, telephoned her shortly before the second plane hit tower two, where he had just arrived for work. Ms Iken has no tape of his words but she remembers them vividly. "He said, 'Hi, everything's OK,' and I said, 'Everything's OK? Of course, you're at work'. He said, 'Turn on the TV'." His last words, Ms Iken told the Daily News, were: "People are falling out of the building. I got to go."