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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

A shattered city stirs

Everyday commerce begins to emerge from pall of smoke, rubble of towers

Friday, September 14, 2001

NEW YORK -- In this new kind of war, the field of battle is also new, with dimensions and complexities you would not expect, and with many different personal realities.

In Battery Park, just before noon, a steelworker cried as he walked away after 15 hours of cutting through mangled girders so medical workers could carry out hands, heads and pieces of bone.

Minutes later, about three kilometres away, a man stepped out of his Mercedes SLK convertible and into the now-open doors of Prada, where he went first to a rack of sweaters then the shoe department.

That is the bifurcated reality of Manhattan as it struggles to recover. The effort includes both the superhuman task of clearing a million tonnes of rubble and putting out fires that have burned for three days straight, to the more subtle process of allowing everyday commercial and social life to reassert itself amidst chaos.

Since Tuesday morning, when suicide pilots flew hijacked jetliners into the towers of the World Trade Center, causing them to collapse into the streets below, Manhattan has faced an unequalled urban crisis. Several thousand people are believed dead, and virtually every component of the city's infrastructure has been heavily damaged.

Yesterday, lower Manhattan was still shadowed by a mammoth cloud of smoke, steam and suspended concrete and asbestos particles, and the blocked-off streets were lined with rescue vehicles, construction equipment, police, firefighters, tradespeople, medical personnel and engineers struggling to get the city working again.

The true hellishness of restoring the city's systems can only be appreciated by seeing the situation up close. Engineers and tradesmen face a kind of logistical Rubik's Cube -- trying to solve one problem involves an inescapable shift that may make another worse. The most obvious example is the transportation infrastructure: Engineers can't allow subway trains to run because the seismic vibration they produce may cause weakened buildings to collapse.

The cascading quality of the infrastructure problems is also reflected in other systems. Although power is urgently required in the area near the collapse, fears that damaged electrical systems could spark a fire have prompted officials to keep the power off, forcing crews to bring in generator trucks.

Virtually every major system in southern Manhattan has been heavily damaged, including natural gas lines, sewage and water pipes, telephone and fibre-optic links, and much more. Before they can begin repairs, crews must remove tonnes of debris that in some areas fill the streets to a level of eight storeys.

Further complicating the effort is the fact that the wreckage is filled with human bodies and parts. Because of the possibility that survivors are still trapped beneath, crews must carefully pick their way through tonnes of tangled concrete, steel and twisted steel girders.

Yesterday, armies of workers continued the exhausting, heartbreaking task, which requires a combination of brute force and delicacy. A growing pile of flattened, blackened vehicles was stacked in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. At the site of the Trade Center collapse, welders with oxyacetylene torches cut through steel, hydraulic hammers shattered concrete slabs and earthmovers scooped up tonnes of debris. The mechanized assault must be halted over and over again as workers come upon body parts that have ranged from ears to toes to entire corpses.

In the meantime, other rescuers explore passages through the wreckage, with flashlights strapped to their helmets as they hunt for survivors.

"Every time I go in there I cry," said a fireman. "I don't think it's easy for people to appreciate just what this city is up against. Basically, it's like rebuilding Dresden."

In the latitudes north of 14th Street, the line where police turn away everyone except those on official business at the disaster scene, the city is slowly recovering its social and commercial energy. A high percentage of the stores in midtown Manhattan were open by yesterday afternoon, and the streets that were nearly barren on Tuesday and Wednesday began filling with pedestrians and street vendors.

Among them was Earl Douglin, who sells die-cast model cars and airplanes from a table on Fifth Avenue near 22nd Street. After two days of sitting at home, he was back, with his wooden table covered with miniature Porsches, Ferraris and P-51 Mustangs.

He spent much of his day sitting in a folding chair, reading newspapers. "It's not like a work day," Mr. Douglin said. "It's like a vacation day."

"On Tuesday, when I saw the building go down, I just went home. The city was wrecked, and there wasn't much point in trying to sell little cars and airplanes after that . . . even now, it's not normal. It's hushed. I never saw New York like this before."

"It's two different worlds," a salesman at a store near Broadway said. "Up here, it's almost like nothing happened. But down there, it's like you're in hell."

James Abissah, a taxi driver, has watched the city's tragic cycle from his street-level perspective. On Tuesday and Wednesday he cruised through near-deserted streets. By yesterday, he was back in business, driving with his radio tuned to live news. When the word came that five rescuers buried under the rubble had been found alive, he took his hands off the wheel and clapped.

"Hallelujah!" he said. "Praise God."

Mr. Abissah noted that delivery trucks were working again for the first time since Tuesday.

Driving north, he took stock of all the businesses that had reopened -- a few customers picked through the wares at Gap and HMV, Mity Fine Catering was open, and the lights were on again at Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King.

"The city is coming back," he said. "Not all at once, but it's coming."

Virtually everyone is affected in one way or another.

Myrna Shelebsky, who works at Olden Camera in midtown Manhattan, said the store has operated seven days a week since it opened in the 1950s.

But it closed on Tuesday, and reopened yesterday.

With the subway system closed below midtown, Ms. Shelebsky found that the only way she could get to work from her home in a distant suburb was with a $100 cab ride.

"It's crazy," she said.

Olivia Harris, an office administrator, went back to work yesterday, only to find her office evacuated after officials got wind of a threat to nearby Grand Central Station. A short time later she was in Harlem, where she bought two American flags from a street vendor.

"I stopped to buy these flags because this has made me feel like more of an American," she said. "For once, this is about all of us, together. For once, it's not about colour, or anything else. It's people."


Life Goes On

Voices From After the Fall, The Facts Behind the Fear, and the preview of a new Discovery documentary filmed at Ground Zero.


(RealPlayer required)

  • Six-month Memorial for Sept. 11 - U.S. President George Bush speaks from the White House. "The terrorists will remember Sept. 11 as the day their reckoning began," he said.

  • In Canada - Relatives of Canadian victims of the World Trade Centre attacks wonder why there's no six-month memorial here at home. video reports

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