In midst of disaster, some in New York stole from stores

`They would risk their lives for a few earrings'

Terrorism Strikes America

September 30, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - It was a random act, one of few reported, but the looting that occurred at William Barthman jewelers in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack stunned the store's managers.

Barthman is at the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, a stone's throw from what is now called "ground zero." Across the street is Liberty Plaza, a skyscraper that officials worried might collapse in the wake of the destruction that brought down three buildings at the World Trade Center.

"I couldn't comprehend that with that building being on the verge of collapse they would risk their lives for a few earrings," said Renee Rosales-Kopel, standing in her first-floor shop, where a thick coat of fine gray dust covered everything: windows, the gorgeous display cases that date from the 1860s, telephones, computers, the rug. "They spent a lot of time in here opening boxes, only to find that they were empty."

Overall, major crime has been down 14 percent in New York in the weeks since the attack, said Carmen Melendez, spokeswoman for the New York Police Department. Yet, there are sporadic reports of stores being looted, in one case by a volunteer who joined in the rescue effort.

The week before last, the New York Times reported on evidence of looting in the shops under the World Trade Center. Friday's New York Post carried a report that a Manhattan grand jury was looking into the theft of more than 250 tons of scrap metal from the World Trade Center site.

The debris was allegedly taken to three area scrap metal yards, rather than to the official site, the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. At least 10 suspects are under investigation.

Joel Kopel, who manages the building that houses Barthman, said he has even heard that homes and apartments in the nearby Battery Park neighborhood have been burglarized.

"I can't verify that for you," said Melendez. "A lot of people haven't even gotten into their homes yet."

Phone lines are still down in some areas downtown. Police officers who three weeks ago would have been available to take crime reports have been diverted to help with security that has increased throughout the city.

Two worlds coexist

The difference between downtown and points north of Canal Street gives a sense of almost two worlds coexisting on the island. In midtown, there are few reminders of the tragedy. The most striking is a bronze statue of a firefighter on his knees, and the memorials outside the station house for Battalion 9, Engine 54, Ladder 4. But the fliers pleading for help in finding a missing loved one are absent.

"The people that live north of 14th Street, they really don't understand the pain that we feel," said Joel Kopel. "We've lost customers. We've lost friends."

On Friday, the count of those missing stood at 5,960. So far, 4,620 people have been listed as missing at the Family Assistance Center. The confirmed tally of the dead stands at 305.

Downtown, there is no escaping what happened little more than two weeks ago. The air smells of smoke. The gray dust that filled Barthman's collects on the narrow streets, swirls down from office windows, settles in the lungs of everyone who works here or comes here to see the huge pile of twisted metal in which thousands of people have been entombed.

"Downtown has become a wasteland," said Joel Kopel. "The place is covered with this ash, and no one knows quite what it is."

Merchants worry whether life will ever be the same, whether they'll be able to survive the drastic drop in sales that could linger for months.

Barthman has been in business since 1884. It has survived wars and depressions. But tragedy on this scale never struck so close. So many lives have been lost. So many others have been dislocated, or moved away.

The Kopels, whose fifth-floor gift gallery remains open, wonder whether shoppers will return for the holiday shopping season or stay away, preferring not to face the constant reminders of terrorism's toll.

City officials estimate that the cleanup will take at least 180 days, which means until early spring. The painstaking operation could easily take longer.

Rebuilding the nearby Cortland Street subway stop and its adjoining tunnels could take two years.

"Down here, I think people are still in shock," said Renee Kopel. "We're torn about when we'll reopen. We had initially thought we'd open for Thanksgiving."

Store ransacked

In the minutes after the attack, the Kopels and their employees put away everything they could, then fled. The windstorm that blew through this neighborhood with terrifying force as the twin towers collapsed broke two of the shop's plate glass windows. The front door's glass shattered. The Kopels couldn't get into their store for a week.

When they returned, they found that the place had been ransacked. Drawers had been pulled out and thrown to the floor. A display carousel filled with charms was missing, along with a digital camera.

"The few things that we overlooked was what got stolen," said Renee Kopel, who can hardly believe that here, where evidence of the city's greatest disaster is all around, thieves were at work. "There were so many people who came down to help. So many people were so great, and some people were so bad."

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