Altered city keeps its spirit

Healing: Terrorists may have changed the city forever, but residents display a characteristic spirit as they reassemble their lives. It is, after all, New York.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 16, 2001|By Jean Marbella and Sarah Koenig | Jean Marbella and Sarah Koenig,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - They had it figured out, as they have figured out so much else here: how to channel thousands of workers from every part of the city and region onto trains and buses, and then disgorge them to their offices in one of the most workplace-concentrated zones on Earth, the World Trade Center.

Jeannette Smith was among the flowing mass of humanity emerging from the subway, picking up her coffee and croissant at the usual place and heading to her office Tuesday morning, when all hell suddenly began raining down. The twin trade center towers, targeted by terrorists piloting hijacked jetliners, had exploded in flames. A choking cloud of pulverized debris spread over the south end of Manhattan.

Stumbling blindly into an adjoining building to escape, Smith found that someone had soaked a pile of workmen's uniforms in a basin of water so that people would have something to press to their faces as they ran for their lives.

Two days after that unknown person reacted so quickly and provided instant relief, Smith is wearing the pair of once-soaking shorts, the kind you are more likely to see on a UPS deliveryman than on an information technology specialist, which is what she is.

"They happen to fit," she says, with one of those shakes of the head that is shorthand for "only in New York."

The kind of improvised quick-fix represented by the uniform-soaker has been duplicated many times over in the past week as New York picks itself up from a stunning terrorist strike that brought the city to its knees.

Initially paralyzed and perhaps forever unnerved, the city nonetheless is regrouping.

All around town, there is a war effort-like campaign to volunteer - either one's services in the dig through rubble for the thousands feared buried, or to provide the food, clothing, medical supplies and support to fuel those who have worked round-the-clock at the attack site.

This being New York, America's largest city with its 8 million inhabitants, it's been no mere trickle of offerings - it is thousands of people and tons of provisions. Construction workers providing their skills for free. Rescue workers appealing for everything from socks for firefighters to saline IVs for the dehydrated, to non-drowsy allergy pills for those overcome by the particle-filled air - and almost immediately seeing a truck pull up with just that.

And all this conducted with a shrug and without breaking stride: Hey, this is New York.

"I been here 26 years. In the New York blackout, we were open. During the last bomb, in '93, we were open," says Silvano Marchatta, who owns Da Silvano's in Greenwich Village and was handing out sandwiches and water to any rescue worker walking by en route to the World Trade Center site. "The people who close, it's either laziness or taking advantage of the situation."

With automobile traffic restricted in areas near the devastation, Marchatta's suppliers haven't been able to make their regular deliveries. No problem: He went on foot and carried his fish, steaks and bread back to the restaurant - for both paying customers and the city's newfound heroes.

Even as rescue efforts continue in the rubble of the vanished towers, and much of the usual flow of people and vehicles remains spotty in parts of town, much has returned to normal - the subway is running, bridges and tunnels are open, schools have resumed, as will trading on Wall Street tomorrow, and the neon lights are once again bright on Broadway.

There is a pallor over the city, filled with the mass mourning for the thousands whose faces smile down from the missing-persons fliers that have wallpapered vast stretches of space.

And yet beneath it all is the perceptible hum of the well-oiled machine that is New York - its people and that indefinable mechanism that allows millions of people to live and work and mostly peacefully co-exist on a much-too-small patch of overpriced real estate.

To watch how much has been accomplished in just a few days is to look into the soul of that machine.

"I'm going to do anything they ask me to do," says Carlos Carranza, a Web designer who was part of a line of hundreds of people who had come to the Jacob Javits Convention Center to volunteer.

Even that cavernous building seemed too small to serve as a clearinghouse for people dropping off donations and offering their services.

Carranza and his friend Alexander Castillo were there to do one small thing for the city and the country that took them in as teen-agers whose families were escaping the poverty of Ecuador and the war in El Salvador, respectively.

"I hated it at first. All the different people and languages - I just wasn't used to it," recalls Castillo, also a Web designer. "Now I wouldn't live any place but New York. Now, that is what I cherish the most - so many different people living together in a small place."

The Web designers weren't called on this particular day when the need was more for those with specific construction skills.

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