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September 12, 2001


A Tough City Is Swept by Anger, Despair and Helplessness


James Estrin/The New York Times
Several eight graders at Iona Grammar School in New Rochelle, N.Y. gathered in prayer on Tuesday after learning of the disaster that was unfolding in New York City a few miles south.


interactive_feature  Interactive Feature: Terror Attacks

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A Day of Terror

The city changed forever yesterday. No one, no matter how far from Lower Manhattan, could step on a New York sidewalk untouched by concussions.

The day began in the brilliance of a late summer morning, then was obscured in gray balls of dust and smoke that seemed to touch everyone. The city had become an empire of the stricken.

Erin Dubin, 26 and an aspiring Broadway dancer from Minnesota, had started the day with an audition for "Footloose," hoping for her big break. At midmorning, tears rolling down her face and a cell phone dangling from her limp hand, she stood stock still on 43rd Street at Seventh Avenue, staring but barely taking in the news ticker across the street. Her boyfriend worked at Lehman Brothers in the World Trade Center as a Web page designer.

Normally he arrived at work at 9 a.m. and Ms. Dubin fervently hoped he had been delayed. But she could not reach him.

"I hope he was late," she said, frozen in place as the words scrolled endlessly across the buildings at Times Square. "I don't know exactly what I should be doing. Where should I go?"

New Yorkers were members of a tribe in shock, tied in knots and easily moved to sudden tears and swift kindnesses. People moved through Midtown without the ordinary get- out-of-my way pace. They listened to radios. They grabbed one- minute updates from strangers. They spoke urgently into cell phones. They waited quietly in long lines no shoving, no impatient words at the pay phones on street corners. The hundreds who sat or stood under outdoor jumbo electronic television screens were virtually silent; it was no time for small talk.

Further uptown on Eighth Avenue, a crowd stood around a delivery van, listening to radio reports.

By midmorning, when the news had filtered out to just about everybody and the great cloud of black smoke at the southern end of Manhattan had become a permanent blot on the horizon, businesses began to close down and bars began to fill up. Smokers who had quit decided to take it up again, at least for the day. A bus would stop, going uptown, and people rushed to get on, no matter what its destination.

"Will someone ask the driver where this bus is going?" shouted a woman as she propelled herself toward an M2 limited bus on Madison Avenue. "Just get on or you'll never get out of Manhattan," called back a teenager near the front.

But getting places was out of the question for most people. The only way to go was north, or east, away from the fires and destruction. And for most, the only way to go was on foot. They found bridges closed and highways open to pedestrians and subways stopped dead.

Jim Speziale, driving a bread delivery truck, took pity. He stopped his truck on Park Avenue at 33rd Street, opened the door and invited people in. "I'm going up as far as 59th Street," he shouted to the crowds on the sidewalks. They climbed in by the dozens.

People who made it across the Manhattan Bridge were met by workers from Long Island College Hospital and Brooklyn Hospital Center. They were handing out water and fruit juice to those beginning to trudge down Flatbush Avenue.

"Water and medical attention here!" shouted Claudine Rose, normally a clerical worker at the Brooklyn Hospital Center. "You can call your families across the street and let people know that you're okay."

It was almost as if the city had turned tender, as if people wanted to tip-toe around each other so as not to cause any upset. Normal reactions irritation at stalled traffic, peevishness at pedestrians who stopped in the middle of the sidewalk were muted.

There were refugees everywhere: a long, slow motion flight from the core of the city, great strings of people putting their feet on the ground, in hopes that it, unlike the sky, was safe. And because they would be putting down their feet many times, some women stopped on Canal Street to buy $8 flip-flops, a small advantage over high-heeled shoes for such a journey.

As those brushed by the attacks drifted away from the neighborhood around ground zero, they were met with acts of grace, large and small. Keith Vance reported that he found himself a few blocks away from the collapse, in front of a Chinese delicatessen. The proprietor came out with bottles of water. Then a man in a hardware store handed out dust masks used by plasterers.

The numbers of walkers grew as the devastating news took hold. Maria Thomas, at work in Macy's when she heard about the explosions, decided not to stay. "Look, Macy's is a landmark building, you know," she explained from 10 blocks away. As she left, customers were streaming into the store, apparently unaware of what was happening in Lower Manhattan. "It's believable and at the same time it's not believable," said Ms. Thomas.

That was the mental line many people walked: how could this horror, which would not be credible on a movie screen, be actual, be real, be flesh and blood?

For some of those who had been downtown, the horror of the moment emerged as they walked miles toward home, carried along on waves of shock and contemplation. Ed Lamm, who works at J.P. Morgan in New York Plaza, said he could not escape the image.

"It's devastating, just looking back at that scene," said Mr. Lamm, 53, of Mineola, as he crossed the Manhattan Bridge. "The smoke, the darkness. It's like the day stood still.

"You're aware what's in the sky, checking for planes, seeing F-15's in the sky. But we're the lucky ones, we're alive."

Carole Kitrosser, a financial planner who normally works a few blocks from the World Trade Center, was seeing clients uptown yesterday. Her country would never feel the same. "If they can stop New York City from functioning, what happens next?" Ms. Kitrosser said.

"But I felt violated, that my safety was violated and that this country has got to do something to protect us," Ms. Kitrosser said. "I don't think I can ever go downtown to work again. I don't think I can look at the rubble. Our schools are closed. Our financial district is closed. We're not safe anywhere."

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