New Yorkers cling to fading hope that their loved ones will return

Terrorism Strikes America

Remembering The Victims

September 18, 2001|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NEW YORK - Wanda Lopez, one of the haunted who wander this city in the wake of the terrorist attacks, tapes her husband's photograph to a wall covered with photos at Lexington Avenue and 28th Street, and she murmurs a man's name. The name is not her husband's. Then she says a second man's name. Neither is this her husband's.

"My God, that's Stevie," she says. "He's missing, too?"

It is Steve Joseph, her husband George's friend, and an instant later, it is Ivan Perez, also her husband's friend. Gone, all of them. The three of them worked for an investment banking firm on the 97th floor of the second World Trade Center building that was hit one week ago. Now all of their photos, enlarged and printed on leaflets, have been taped to this wall with so many others who are vanished.

Lopez covers her mouth to swallow a sob. The leaflets, printed at an armory turned into a missing-persons center two blocks away, are everywhere now, on walls and phone booths, on windows and trees, and on light poles and flower beds turned into memorials. They proclaim these people missing. This is widely believed to be a euphemism.

"I'm going to find him," Wanda Lopez says. "Yeah?"

She says the last as a question to which no one wants to give honest answer. It is one week since the attacks, and New York attempts to get back to business as usual. That is the mayor's phrase, but it is also believed to be a euphemism. Nothing here can be the way it was.

Wall Street reconvened yesterday, but all who work there had to navigate around the enormous canyon of rubble that once symbolized the strength of American business. Nearby City Hall is open, but nobody could get there by driving through the once-convenient Holland Tunnel. It has not reopened since the attacks.

And those whose loved ones have not come home must inevitably ask themselves: How long can I hold out hope? A city cop at Canal Street says he looked at a list of 70 names of missing New York police officers posted on a precinct wall. He says he knew 50 of them. A fireman from all the way up on 83rd Street says half his company was wiped out in the rescue effort. A transit company worker says his sister worked on the 104th floor of the second attacked building and has not been found. Today is his sister's birthday. He says maybe a miracle will occur and she will walk into her apartment today, where her husband and two little daughters are still holding out hope.

It is not just that madmen have murdered their loved ones - the attack was videotaped, and then shown repeatedly on television. Who could cope with such a thing, except through denial? And so the victims are still referred to as "missing," and the leaflets with their photographs are everywhere.

Here is one showing a boy and his father. It says, "Have you seen my Daddy, Jason Johnson?" Here is one that says, "Have you seen my lovely wife Griselda James? Her husband is searching for her desperately." Here is one that says, "Come home, Anna and Steve."

At each of these clusters of photographs, groups of people gather to examine them, and each gathering becomes an implicit ceremony of grieving. Some weep. For all its legendary toughness, New York is not yet cried out.

And Wanda Lopez, standing on Lexington Avenue, tapes her husband's picture to this wall and tells herself he is out here somewhere. Down the block, many hundreds of people gather outside the armory. Some are volunteers trying to help, and others are there to file missing-person reports.

"They're going to find him," Lopez says. She is a Realtor with Century 21. "I've had a heavy heart, but now I think I feel some kind of a life pulse, you know? George was quick, he was strong, he was smart. If he's breathing, he's breathing for his daughter and son, who were his life."

The children are 8 and 3. She says George called her at work when the first plane hit. "It's not our building," he said. "I gotta go. They're moving us to the 90th floor." His wife tried to call him back on his cell phone. George Lopez has not returned the call.

So those like Wanda Lopez walk the streets, or sit by the phone, and hold out hope - as though their loved ones might have survived but lost their way home, or lost their memories, or forgot who they were and merely need someone to look hard enough to find them.

Nothing could prepare people for the attacks - or the aftermath. At Church and Duane streets, about four blocks from the devastation, comes a line of trucks. One hauls out a crushed white car marked "Medical Examiner." Another carries steel girders that have been twisted like paper clips. A third says, "Bellevue Morgue."

People stand along police barricades, muttering "unbelievable" at the sight of steel frames resting at 45-degree angles, like a giant erector set somebody's pulled down and will have to rebuild. It is unbelievable - because the vastness of the destruction, and the cloud of smoke overhead, is far bigger than anything TV can convey.

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