New Yorkers try to come to terms with the horror that struck their city
ROBERT SHEPPARD,BENOIT AUBINSeptember242001
New Yorkers try to come to terms with the horror that struck their city
Soon after last week’s attack, Maclean’s Toronto-based Senior Writer Robert Sheppard and Montreal Bureau Chief Benoit Aubin headed towards ground zero. After lengthy drives, they found a New York City slowly coming back to life, still unsure of what had hit it. Their impressions:
It’s a brilliant day in Manhattan—crisp, sunny blue skies—nature’s glory adding to the wound. Witnessed from the train coming in from New Jersey, the plume of smoke from what were once the twin towers of the World Trade Center rises straight up like a stovepipe. The sun’s refraction through the burning chemicals in the smoke has turned it a startling shade of lavender.
It’s the day after the kamikaze attack on the heart of New York’s financial district, and the streets of downtown Manhattan are eerily beautiful. They’re almost devoid of cars. Emergency forces have commandeered some of the main arteries for their vehicles and the dump trucks—120 in the first night alone—trying vainly to haul away debris. With few cars about, pedestrians have taken over the streets. Rollerbladers galore, strollers, there is even an ice-cream vendor on a bike. It’s like one of those rare snowstorms that occasionally shut down the place, someone says. Or a modest European city on a Sunday afternoon. For locals, what is truly noticeable is the silence. Tom Kelley, an accountant who lives and works only a few blocks from the massive complex, remembers the first terrorist attack on the centre in 1993. “The sirens never stopped,” he recalls. “They went on for days.” That was when police and ambulances went back and forth with newly discovered victims. But this time, he says, “It’s been quiet—and that’s the horrible thing.”
New York picked up its bustle, slowly at first and then with more defined din as the week wore on. But below Houston Street—the officially imposed dividing line separating the rest of Manhattan from what, for all intents and purposes, is a war zone—the mood is much different. People have stopped talking, except on cellphones, but they haven’t stopped gawking. This is New York, after all, the right to gawk is genetic. Few meet your
eyes. Those who live there are hunkered down. Or they live like gypsies: their apartments lacking water or electricity or both, they bunk in with friends or coworkers, returning home only to grab parcels of clothes.
Even the police and emergency workers seem less officious in the war zone, content to let the locals wander about perilously close to the front lines. Perhaps because the realization has come more quickly to them that they are not guarding an accident site so much anymore as a burial ground. The 21st-centurys first pogrom, someone called it.
The area surrounding the trade centre catastrophe, a radius that includes much ofWall Street, has that grotty, bombed-out look that North Americans have never witnessed before firsthand. Burned-out cars and police vehicles litter the streets, caked in a fine silvery ash.
The rescue vehicles and dump trucks, from across New York and neighbouring states, are arrayed in a magnificent procession. The logistics of the rescue work are truly impressive. Entire teams of police and firefighters march into place at regular intervals. Volunteers from out of town can be seen sleeping Ín their vans with the windows up, even in the heat of the afternoon, because of the dust. Food and water are dropped off in prodigious amounts. There’s even a MASH unit—a Mobile Animal Spay-Neuter Hospital that’s been brought in to treat the sniffer dogs. Their eyes are caking up and they’re being injured falling through the rubble, one vet explains. But the animals are quickly patched up and sent back into the fray with a zeal matched only by the others on the front ranks.
The stories of the dive-bombing and collapse of the towers are horrendous. A father was on a cellphone with his son who was trapped by the fire and had climbed to the top of the tower when the building collapsed. Everyone you talk to here knows someone either directly or just removed who’s been touched by tragedy. “I just feel so vulnerable now,” says Deborah French, an interior designer who moved into a loft in the area 25 years ago as a young sculptor, and is one of those forced from her home. For her, the World Trade Center with its fabulous collection of stores had been her neighbourhood
mall. She’d just been there on the weekend with her 11-year-old son and his friends shopping for books. It was a lively, bustling hive. “You think of Los Angeles and its earthquakes, and then as nuts and stressed-out as New York is, it has no natural disasters,” she said. “But if New York is going to be the proving ground for these guys, that changes everything.”
Some in the area now say the worry for them is over: the focal point of the terrorists, whomever they are, has now been destroyed. But for other New Yorkers, especially with talk of retaliation in the air, their worries are just beginning to sink in. Nasreen Madhany, a former Torontonian, is an advertising executive with Ogilvy & Mather who transferred to New York five years ago to look after one of the agency’s top accounts. “Both personally and professionally, it has been a remarkably positive experience,” she said. But Madhany lives near the United Nations building on the east side and works in a large office tower in Times Square. Her family in Toronto has asked her to rethink her career choices and she’s promised them she will—when things calm down. Still, New York seemed so safe, she said, and Washington, too: “I mean, when you’re talking about the Pentagon, you are talking about airspace that should be secure.”
Is a new sense of vulnerability seeping into the American consciousness? Certainly there has been a distinct absence of bellicosity. The man of the hour in New York is Mayor Rudy Giuliani, not normally known for his reticence. But when someone shouted “Go get ’em, Rudy” at a public briefing last week, he quickly responded with a finger-to-the-lips “shhh.” The mayor’s message: we are New Yorkers, we are strong and resilient and we won’t be cowed, but take this rare moment of respite to comfort your neighbours, to be with your families. He even urged people to go shopping, and many did.
With some exceptions, the trains and subways were running. The commuter train in from New Jersey was even free on the day after the bombing. The view out the window of the huge lavender plume was nothing short of spectacular. But no one pointed it out. And when I looked around the car, most people were looking the other way.
Once again, history was being made in New York City, but this time, the glamour, the hype were not in style. This was the morning after. The thing now was to try and understand.
The big city was shut off and shut down. Airports, bridges, highways were closed; so were the stock exchange, the offices, the banks and most stores. Pedestrians were strolling down the middle of Fifth Avenue. Church bells were chiming. A lone jet plane flew over; everybody heard it and looked up. No horns honking. The Empire State Building—cordoned off by a detail of tired, nervous policemen—had become, once again, the tallest building in town.
Looking south from Union Square, one saw the plume of smoke. It took a mental effort to remind oneself that the cloud of dust and soot was also made of souls, those of thousands of people who, just 24 hours before, were chatting, stirring their coffee, and now were dead, killed by jumbo jets coming through the office window, or crushed under a pile of debris bigger than Madison Square Garden. “Disbelief” is how David Rivera, a heavily tattooed film editor, described his state of mind. “I saw the whole thing from my rooftop in Chelsea yesterday. But today, I keep looking south, to check that the World Trade Center is still not there.”
Interviewing New Yorkers was not difficult on Wednesday. They chased you to tell you their story. “My bedroom window looks direcdy at the World Trade Center, and I was woken up by the first explosion,” says Johan McKinley, a waitress in a midtown café. “It was unreal, like watching Die Hard from my bed.”
In every bar, restaurant and shop, customers were glued to TV sets, which, every 10 minutes, showed the same pictures, like a mantra—everybody watching intently every time, mesmerized, with grim faces, watery eyes. “The shock has brought people much closer together,” says Jorge, delivering produce in Greenwich Village. “We all know someone who knows someone who was around there Tuesday.”
On Broadway at East 10th Street, Grace Church was open, welcoming everyone to come in and pray. “This neighbourhood, this city, this country suffer, and will suffer for a long time,” the priest intoned, “for we
have lost a measure of our innocence.” A few doors north, another sort of church, the United Artists cinema complex, offered free movies and popcorn. “Were just trying to help,” says Tim Baggett, the manager. Among the movies showing: Apocalypse Now, Rush Hour 2.
On Union Square, people had unfurled dozens of large pieces of cardboard, inviting passers-by to write their thoughts. Some left flowers, incense, candles, pictures. Most of the graffiti was of the nomore variety. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth will leave us all blind and toothless,” one said. Another: “If this was worse than Pearl Harbor, will we do something worse than Hiroshima?”
At street corners, in squares and parks, heated, spontaneous debates were attracting crowds, the speakers often excited and confused, grappling with the issue of what to do next. “This is war, man. We have been attacked, we must retaliate.”
“But against who?”
The loss of innocence caused by the attack is the loss of an illusion, the one Americans believed about being safe on their own territory. “We’ve always waged our wars far away from here, in Europe, Asia, the Middle East,” said Jack Milton, an advertising photographer. “This one has hit us right here at home, and that freaks the hell out of everyone.”
Thirty-six hours after the terrorist attack that has altered the skyline of Manhattan, New Yorkers were lining the sidewalks of West Street, cheering and waving flags at a long convoy of fire trucks and busloads of rescue workers. The panic and urgency had subsided somewhat, the vehicles were rolling slowly and orderly, their occupants
waving back at the crowd, making the scene look more like a civic parade on July 4 than the day after one of the ugliest, bloodiest mornings in the nation’s history.
At dusk, a candlelight vigil was held in Washington Square. Emotion ran high in the crowd, tears flowed, strangers held hands. New Yorkers were closing ranks, discovering in pain and sorrow they’re no different from others.
Slowly, as the day faded into night, life—and the fleets of big yellow cabs blowing their horns—was coming back to normal uptown, near Grand Central Station. One cabbie bitterly expressed a commonly held view: “I hope we catch the guy who organized this, and I hope we don’t make the mistake we made with Saddam Hussein and let him live.”
But graffiti in Union Square captured a more thoughtful grief: “I have nothing but angry words to say, so I say peaceful nothing.” IS]
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