Keeping virgil for the missing

Commuters: Some of the best and brightest of a N.J. community went by rail daily to work on Wall Street. Many won't be coming home.

Terrorism Strikes America

New York City

September 14, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SUMMIT, N.J. -- The townspeople -- suburban royalty in one of New Jersey's richest communities -- assembled on the broad town green like medieval villagers in a plague-stricken hamlet to hear whom they'd lost.

At an ecumenical prayer service Wednesday night, a Lutheran minister called out the names of a dozen residents still unaccounted for after Tuesday's attack on the World Trade Center. Others in the crowd of nearly 2,000 called out names he omitted.

"There are four families on my street and the next one over without fathers tonight," said Leo Paytas, 38, who was headed for a 9 a.m. meeting on the 80th floor of the north tower when it was hit. He escaped with a few cuts.

While the world's attention focuses on the rubble of lower Manhattan, a different drama is playing out on the city's perimeter. In New Jersey, Connecticut, Upstate New York, Long Island and Staten Island, bedroom communities that daily send thousands of workers to Wall Street are waiting for their own to return.

This suburban sorrow is especially acute in Summit, a town of 21,000 favored by the financial elite for its big houses, good schools and, above all, its New Jersey Transit rail link to Manhattan. It is the home of, among others, the state's billionaire Democratic senator, Jon Corzine.

"This is a very big part of Wall Street out here, all because of the [train line]," said Andy Fletcher, 33, a trader who knows 15 of the missing, a few of them from Summit, many of them from the bond trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald on the top floors of the north tower. That firm alone has 700 employees missing in the suicide attack.

The train line dominates Summit, bisecting its handsome commercial district from the town green on a sunken track, like a Dutch canal. Until this week, it was Summit's lifeline, an electric cord that linked it to the energy and wealth of the big city.

The New York skyline is 20 miles away and barely visible, but the train to Manhattan leaves every 15 minutes at rush hour and takes 45 minutes.

Tuesday, the line short-circuited at the World Trade Center.

That evening, trains typically packed with dark-suited businessmen arrived nearly empty, spilling out only a few ash-covered survivors who were met by medical crews and anxious families.

"That's when it really hit me, having hundreds of people waiting there for their spouses," said Michele Wallace, an employee at the local Women's Resource Center, which is offering free counseling to women whose husbands or friends are missing.

Wednesday, most of those who had made it back the day before stayed home with their families, trading their suits for shorts and remaining near the phone for news of their colleagues.

The train, meanwhile, brought home a few more workers who hadn't been able to get out of the city the night before, including Jennifer Weiss, who works in the midtown branch of Sandler, O'Neill & Partners, which had hundreds of employees on the 104th floor of the south tower.

"Most of our equity department is unaccounted for," she said, as her husband arrived in his Saab to take her home. "We lost a lot of colleagues."

By 7 p.m., the town green was full of families from all parts of town -- the leafy streets with the $500,000 ranchers, the multifamily houses on the eastern edge dominated by Costa Rican and Colombian immigrants.

Residents -- most of them couples in their 30s and 40s, many with young children along -- hugged neighbors they knew who worked in or near the towers. Wives, a number of them pregnant, held their husbands close.

The large turnout was no surprise, residents said. Summit -- so named because it is on a rise over the rest of Union County -- might be a bedroom community, but it is older than some of the suburbs to the west, and has the feel of a regular small town, they said.

People get to know each other at the local schools, the gyms, the downtown boutiques and family-owned groceries that have held their own against nearby Short Hills Mall.

"The main thing is that we are together as a community standing together for the things that make us human," said the Rev. Charles Rush, a Baptist minister, after a string quintet opened with some Elgar. "God, we come to you with bitterness and anger; ... fill us with your strength, your courage, your compassion."

The bell rang for the 7:14, and a young boy with a Nantucket T-shirt squirmed out of his mother's grasp to go play with his friends.

As the Rev. Wayne Dreyman called out the names of the missing, a woman with a stroller heard a familiar one.

"Oh, God," she said.

In the back of the crowd, Paytas shared what he knew with friends as their children ran circles around them, playing with a toy plane. "There are whole trading desks that are unaccounted for," said Paytas, whose company installed fiber-optic wiring at the World Trade Center.

"Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Fuji, Shearer -- they're on floor 103, 102, 105. They're all there."

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