Bravado Masks A New Fear

February 28, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- The day after New Yorkers suffered yet anothe blow to their fragile psyche, the talk was all of getting up, dusting off and slogging forward. But behind the bravado was a haunting fear that this time was a bit different from the past insults and injuries.

It wasn't just that a blast like the one that crippled the World Trade Center could happen again and that no one was safe. Now, many New Yorkers seemed at a loss to know how to deal with the threat of terrorism.

"Central Park I can avoid at night," said Michael Ramirez, a security guard at a 43-story midtown Manhattan bank building. "Some parts of town I don't enter, but now I'm supposed to keep out of the high-rises? This is getting ridiculous."

While Mr. Ramirez doesn't work in the 110-story World Trade Center towers that were rendered unusable by Friday's blast, he and hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers who work in the city's towers were affected. Even if uninjured, they had yet another worry tossed in their daily grab-bag of gnawing anxieties and dangerous no-go zones.

Gov. Mario M. Cuomo said in a television interview that the attack was like an expose of the city's vulnerability. "We all have that feeling . . . of being violated," Mr. Cuomo said.

New York Newsday, put it even more bluntly on its front page: "No One Is Safe."

For many of the those who worked in the trade center, the fear of returning to work seemed palpable yesterday.

Maggie Cruz, a stockbroker who worked on the 84th floor of one of the World Trade Center's twin towers, said she does not relish returning to work, whenever the towers are declared sound.

"I don't want to go back in there before we get assurances that safety will be improved," Ms. Cruz said. "Now we find out that the center was exempt from fire codes. How can the government exempt 100,000 people from safe working conditions?"

Dr. Paul Salkin, who specializes in forensic psychiatry and post-traumatic stress syndrome at Beth Israel North Hospital, said victims of the blast are probably no different from survivors of other catastrophes.

"When confronted with a life-threatening situation, be it a rape, an assault or a terrorist assault, the mind responds in classical ways," Dr. Salkin said. "The patient has trouble sleeping, has flashbacks, is easily startled or may just be hard to get along with."

Reactions seemed divided by where New Yorkers work. Those like Ms. Cruz, who work at the top of skyscrapers, especially landmarks that might make terrorist targets, said they were very worried, while those lower down said they felt safer.

But Dr. Salkin said even these denials show that the problem has been considered, and so it exists. Susan Moi, who works on the eighth floor of one of the World Trade Center towers, acknowledged as much when she said yesterday that she was && calm but that "it's in the back of my mind."

Another effect could be to raise general concerns that many people have about these office silos.

"To be honest with you, I'd always disliked these things," one worker said, gesturing up toward a 30-story Manhattan building. "But what are you going to do? We're New Yorkers, we'll survive."

That attitude was echoed by a popular New York newspaper columnist, the Daily News' Mike McAlary, who wrote yesterday that "Struck by a sense of mortality, if not mortal wounds, New Yorkers must go to work again."

This bravado stems from a seemingly endless stream of civic catastrophes -- from New York's racial tensions and fiscal troubles to its legendary power outages and annual winter storm paralysis. Even this toughness, however, has its limits.

"Nobody has bravado unless they have anxiety, and I would expect to see a lot more of it in the coming weeks, especially if this keeps up," Dr. Salkin said. "It may be New Yorkers' trademark, but cockiness isn't healthy. A healthy person doesn't have bravado."

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