Just Degrees Away From Danger

Statistically and emotionally, we are all connected to Sept. 11's tragedy. In Crofton, where almost everybody knew someone, the math hit home.


September 23, 2001|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

CROFTON - Buzz was watching television in an auto repair shop. George had walked his poodles and was cleaning house. Bob was on the golf course. Kathleen was teaching her fourth-grade class.

It was another Tuesday in Crofton - one that started out as safe, snug and serene as any other day in this planned suburban Maryland community, its entrance marked by brick walls, white iron gates and a duck pond.

But, just as if you were to drop a rock into that pond, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon would send ripples through Crofton, as in towns across America, with ever-widening circles of people realizing that, if they didn't personally know any victims, they weren't many steps removed from someone who did.

In Crofton, like everywhere else, connections - close and distant - would surface; some immediately, some gradually. Some may still lay ahead.

Buzz Zinn would learn that a friend, Ann Judge, travel office manager for the National Geographic Society, was a passenger on the flight that struck the Pentagon.

George Laboissonniere would find out that his third cousin, television producer David Angell, was a passenger on the first airliner to strike the World Trade Center.

Bob Torene would hear that his wife, attending a business conference in the World Trade Center complex, escaped unharmed.

And Kathleen Depman, awaiting word from her husband, at work in the Pentagon, would try to stay focused on her class at Crofton Woods Elementary School.

"It seems like everybody you talk to knows of somebody who has some connection," said Laurie Torene, who ran from the Marriott at the World Trade Center when the first plane hit, eventually making her way home via ferry boat and U-Haul truck. "It's like `six degrees of separation.' "

Actually, it's even less.

That popular belief - supported by some scientific studies - holds that anyone on earth can be linked to anyone else by a chain of only six other people.

Lumping together those who worked in the Pentagon and World Trade Center, who were on the airliners and who were in the immediately at-risk areas - probably around 50,000 people - and assuming each had 100 friends and relatives, the degree of separation between an American and someone involved in the tragedy is less than two.

Looking just at the more than 6,000 presumed dead, the degree of separation would be less than three.

As with the Vietnam War, AIDS, or any event or phenomenon involving tens of thousands of people, nearly everyone in the country knows someone, or someone who knows someone, who was affected. And the odds increase in certain smaller circles, such as people living in New York City or Washington, D.C.

Others, meanwhile, having not heard of a personal connection yet, worry they still might; that as thousands of bodies are discovered and identified, a name from their past will show up on the list of victims: high school friend, prom date, college buddy, baby sitter.

"Everybody is probably only two or fewer handshakes away," said Steven H. Strogatz, a Cornell University professor of theoretical and applied mathematics who has studied what is also called the "small world phenomenon."

"Perhaps one of every 50 Americans knows somebody who was either a casualty or escaped, and pretty much everybody knows somebody who knows somebody," he said.

"It's significant in terms of how close we all are to the horror. If it happens to your friend, that's the most horrible thing of all. If it happens to a friend of a friend, people still have a pretty clear concept of it. But a friend of a friend of a friend is really pretty meaningless to us.

"The cutoff between two and three handshakes is right where this tragedy has occurred," Strogatz added. "It's on the intimate side of the psychological cutoff, and that might be part of why it's so upsetting - that and the fact that we all have a friend in the television, and in that way we're all connected to everything."

Even in a community as insular as Crofton, insulating oneself is impossible - not just from television images, but from some sort of connection to the tragedy, even if it is one, two, or even more degrees removed.

No one who lives in Crofton is believed to have been killed in the attacks. And despite being heavily populated with government, military and intelligence workers, there were no reports of any serious injuries among its residents.

Still, this small unincorporated community, where they once locked the gates at night and where flags fly year-round, was far from untouched.

At Crofton Woods Elementary, fifth-grader Jonathan Harkey, 10, learned that he lost a distant cousin he'd never met: Brooklyn firefighter Timothy Stackpole, 42, whose body was recovered last week.

"He had been watching TV, but when we heard this he was very upset - to the point of tears," his grandmother, Pat Stamato, said. "Even with a cousin he's never met, it's a connection. It brings it home."

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