9/11 – Remembering a Future That Many Feared


9-11-smokeBy N. R. Kleinfeld

The day dawned different and stayed that way. Traffic was thin and sidewalks quiet. The stock exchange didn’t open, nor the airports or the schools. People loaded up on bottled water, batteries, canoes. The law enforcement presence was intense: men with machine guns, gunboats circling the harbor.

Downtown, fires burned, smoke plumed. The odor stood.

It was a city humbled and scared, where the possibilities of destruction had been recalibrated. It was Sept. 12, 2001. The day after.

So much has been said and written about what happened on 9/11. The following day is forgotten, just another dulled interlude in the aftermath of an incoherent morning.

But New Yorkers were introduced that day to irreducible presumptions about their wounded city that many believed would harden and become chiseled into the event’s enduring legacy.

New York would become a fortress city, choked by apprehension and resignation, forever patrolled by soldiers and submarines. Another attack was coming. And soon.

Tourists? Well, who would ever come again? Work in one of the city’s skyscrapers? Not likely. The Fire Department, gutted by 343 deaths, could never recuperate.

If a crippled downtown Manhattan were to have any chance of regeneration, ground zero had to be rebuilt quickly, a bricks and mortar nose-thumbing to terror.

Ten years later, those presumptions are cobwebbed memories that never came to pass. Indeed, glimpses into a few aspects of the city help measure the gap between what was predicted and what actually came to be.

You could start at one downtown street corner. The wisdom of the day after was that New York would never again bunch together important institutional nerve centers, binding them together in vulnerability.

On Sept. 11, American Express had its headquarters at the southwest corner of West and Vesey Streets. It is still there. Since then, Verizon has settled its headquarters into the northeast corner. Goldman Sachs has assumed the northwest. All that’s missing is the southeast corner. That will be filled by the tallest building in America.

The Times Square Novelty Man

David Cohen pointed out what the tourists like: replica taxicabs, “I Love New York” T-shirts and thimbles – any gewgaw inscribed with New York. “See this digital picture postcard?” he said. “Nice little item.”

Mr. Cohen, 83, is the patriarch of Grand Slam, a family-run novelty and baseball clothing store on Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets, in the heart of Times Square. Eight years ago, he could not have imagined the heaving commerce, the new big buildings, and especially not the complacent scene outside his doors. People basked in the balmy weather at tables and chairs, under sheltering patio umbrellas, spread across Broadway. If they worried about anything, it was sunburn.

How about that? People, at the behest of the mayor himself, flocking to Times Square to relax!

When fear engulfed the city on Sept. 12, many wrote off Times Square. Chemical bombs were sure to explode there. A suicide bomber strapped with explosives was destined to blow himself up at lunch hour.

“It was creepy,” Mr. Cohen said. “It was, ‘Oh my God, what’s next?’ I thought this would be the next hit.”

Business was slow for months. Souvenirs didn’t seem to mean the same anymore. “Yeah, it took a dive,” Mr. Cohen said. He shortened the store’s hours.

But he did not leave. “You can’t live in fear,” he said. “Things happen and then they don’t happen.”

Now the weak economy squeezes sales, but pedestrian traffic in Times Square is far higher than it was before Sept. 11. Vastly enhanced security has been put in place, and even when incidents defy it, like the small bomb that exploded at the military recruiting station in March 2008, people shrug it off, keep coming.

“This is the best spot in New York,” Mr. Cohen said. “Listen, the Square is the place.”

The Garage Manager

The fires wouldn’t go out. The smell persisted. What company would ever open its doors in Lower Manhattan? Who would live there? Who could feel secure?

The police stopped and searched trucks. Only a few cars were allowed below 14th Street.

Still, Wilson Ortega, 34, came to work. He managed the parking garage at 56 North Moore Street in TriBeCa.

On Sept. 12, business was, as he put it, “off 100 percent.” But cars were still in there, and maybe people wanted them.

As streets reopened, car pooling into Manhattan was mandated during rush hours. Bombs preyed on peoples’ minds. Many garages throughout the city began checking trunks and jabbing mirrors on the ends of poles beneath cars. Some still do, but in large part the practices are additional relics of the times.

“Yeah, I checked,” Mr. Ortega said.

Every trunk was searched. He acknowledged that he had no training in explosives, didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, but he did every car for several months, then those he didn’t recognize, the nonregulars, for nearly a year. Some people were insulted, wouldn’t pop the trunk, and he turned them away. He never found a thing.

The trade center site remains a conflicted construction project. But on North Moore it is cars in, cars out, just as before.

“I never thought things would be the same again,” he said. “But, man, I was wrong. We came back strong.”

The Firefighter

The number was 343. Back in those awful days, Chief Charlie Williams, 9th Battalion, Manhattan, thumbed down the death list looking for the firefighters he could have said hello to by name: “Hi Tom, hi Joe, hi Ray.” After about 40, he stopped. It was enough.

The loss of life to the Fire Department was staggering. Many asked, who would put out the fires of tomorrow?

In addition to the deaths, there was a stampede of retirements. The wives didn’t want to join the widows. And the expansive opportunity for overtime pay afforded a tantalizing opportunity for firefighters to retire at bulgier pensions.

There were 11,339 uniformed members of the Fire Department on Sept. 10, 2001. By Jan. 28, 2003, the ranks had declined to 10,630.

Chief Williams asked himself: “Do I want to go back and do this job?” His wife would have liked him to walk away. But he wasn’t done.

Fresh recruits were rushed in. There was a long, difficult period. Even now, the experience level is not the same. But there are 11,415 uniformed personnel, more than before.

“The bell rings and the men put out the fires,” Chief Williams said. “The city is well served.”

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the firefighters were elevated to superhuman status. People flocked to the firehouses, wanting to shake hands with firefighters, snap their pictures, just say thanks. Chief Williams obliged, though he allowed how it got overbearing at times; he had to shut himself in his office to do his work.

The bravery was always real.

“The worship was definitely an inflated thing,” Chief Williams said. “You couldn’t sustain that.”

His own lungs went bad on him, traced back to the trade center, and he retired last year. He chose the date: Sept. 11.

The Flag Printer

People bought them from hardware stores and Wal-Mart and street vendors and unfurled them outside their homes and on the antennas of their cars. They billowed down the Henry Hudson and the F.D.R.


People wore their patriotism and defiance openly. A new cohesiveness, a oneness, was going to remold the character of American citizenry.

Christopher Gravagna didn’t feel right that people had to buy their patriotism. “That was ridiculous,” he said. “Why should people capitalize on flags at that time?”

He had a printing business in Long Island City, Queens, doing work for clubs and concerts. On Sept. 12, demand for his services essentially stopped and didn’t resume for weeks. So he decided to print paper American flags with the motto “United We Stand” and give them away. He and his employees handed out more than 100,000.

He saw them everywhere.

“It helped feed this feeling that we have to be one, we have to be together on this,” Mr. Gravagna said. “We’re a strong country. We’re strong New Yorkers.”

The flags – cloth and paper – are mostly gone. Some come out, as they always did, on Memorial Day, on the Fourth of July, and on Sept. 11, but that is it.

That special mood? “It’s definitely diminished a lot,” Mr. Gravagna said. “Did I expect it? No. But as a New Yorker, I understand it. I guess part of it has to do with capitalism. In America, we have issues. And time passes. It just passes.”

No one, perhaps, displayed as many flags as Mr. Gravagna himself. He taped them to the windows of his Queens apartment and in his Nissan Sentra. They festooned his offices.

After a while, they came down. The last one he possessed he had framed. He hung it on his office wall. Four years ago, someone stole it.

The Skyscraper Dentist

“The windows here open,” Dr. Charles Weiss said.

He unlatched one. The view south was dazzling, as only a 1,000-foot-high view can be. There was the Empire State Building and, way off, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, as well as a spot where two duplicate towers once stood.

On Sept. 12, it seemed no one would choose to work in a skyscraper again. Especially those with the emblematic names, the ones everyone knew about, high-rise terrorist bounty.

Workers stuffed parachutes under their desks, were given particle masks, acquainted themselves with Geiger counters.

On Sept. 11, Dr. Weiss, a dentist, repaired teeth on the 69th floor of the Chrysler Building, at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue. He still does.

Capitulation was not his style. He recalled a book, “The Last Angry Man,” in which a pugnacious Brooklyn doctor refuses to yield to the bums he calls “galoots.” Dr. Weiss thought, as an assertion of faith, “I’m not going to let the galoots get me.”

On Sept. 12, the Chrysler Building was essentially closed, but he got in. He called patients to reschedule them. Some wanted some time before readdressing their cavities. He didn’t see anyone until the following Monday.

As far as he knows, they all came back. The patients. The people who worked for him. His colleagues who minded the other dental chairs on the floor.

There are always some squeamish patients who fear heights. Dr. Weiss, now 82, dispatches a nurse down to the lobby to ride the elevator up with them. That happened before Sept. 11, too.

Waiting patients now flipped through magazines as the drills sang.

“There’s a tremendous drive of human beings to make the most of life,” Dr. Weiss said. “We’re not hermits. We rise up and move on.”

Dr. Weiss drank in the view some more, watched the ant cars crawling across the ever-clogged city. “I never get tired of that view,” he said. “Never.”

{NY Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}


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