Tenants believe Empire's profile a disadvantage

Stature: Some are scared to work in the prominent building.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 19, 2001|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - After they learned of the first crash into the World Trade Center last week, many in the upper reaches of the Empire State Building rushed to their windows to catch sight of the catastrophe. From there, they had a clear view of the north tower in flames, and before they could fully register that calamity, they watched in disbelief as the second plane slammed into the south tower.

Like millions elsewhere, they instantly recognized that this was no accident; it was an attack. But in the Empire State Building, there was an ancillary, terrifying concern. "I saw the second plane hit," said James MacPherson, an office manager with an executive search firm on the 55th floor, "and all I could think was, `We're next.' "

MacPherson, like many of the other 20,000 people who work in the Empire State Building, didn't wait for the building manager to order an evacuation, a dictum that came within several minutes. Most were rushing to get out of the building anyway.

In these fretful days, who could blame them - especially them. The Empire State Building has been visited by tragedy before. An Army Air Corps B-25 accidentally smashed into the 79th floor, killing 14 people, in 1945. And in 1997, a 69-year-old English teacher, whom investigators believed was deranged, opened fire on tourists visiting the 86th floor observatory. He killed one and wounded six before taking his own life.

Although an Empire State Building address always carried cachet - it was the tallest building in the world until the World Trade Center was built and far more aesthetically pleasing - many tenants have long been apprehensive about its prominence in a world given to public displays of violence.

"I've never liked being in it," said James Lai, a 55-year old operations manager for the Israel Discount Bank who moved into the building in July. "I don't like any high-profile building. To me, the Empire State Building is like the Eiffel Tower. Everybody knows it and knows where it is. That's a danger."

The building managers think so, too. They kept the building closed the day of the attack on the World Trade Center and the next day as well. When they reopened Thursday, it was with more security measures in place. Only one entrance is open and employees must show identification, pass through a metal detector, and submit to a search of their bags. Even thermoses were being opened and checked yesterday.

Another change: The observatory is closed to tourists. A spokesman for the building said a decision on when to reopen will be made on a day-by-day basis.

So far, no one is complaining about the additional security precautions. Perhaps, this is what America should be like from now on. "I do feel safe, not only because of the added police, but also because of the boats surrounding New York," said Maria Spencer, an insurance broker on the 54th floor.

If anything, some worried that Americans will be unwilling to put up with the inconvenience after the emotional temperatures of the last week cool. "I just don't think Americans will put up with this for long," said Anthony Paddock, a financial consultant on the 55th floor, who has worked in the building since 1996. "They've tightened security here before, but it never lasts long."

For now, the luster of working in such a renowned building has lost its appeal, especially perhaps, now that the Empire State Building - tragically - has resumed its former role as the most prominent landmark in the sky above the city. New Yorkers, until recently famous for their brashness, are suddenly desirous of something usually not associated with them - a low profile, both figuratively and literally.

"I can do without the prominence," said Spencer. "At this point, I'd probably rather work in another building."

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