There has been a lot of heroic effort lately in New York. You’ve heard, of course, about the firefighters, police, emergency medical personnel, ironworkers, and others involved in the rescue efforts. But there have been many, many others.
Subway workers have not only toiled day and night to get their system working but also intentionally filled one tunnel with concrete to support a street and have been using equipment designed to lift subway cars to pick up large pieces of debris. Power-company workers have been struggling day and night to restore service to all of lower Manhattan, despite the loss of a major substation at the World Trade Center. Telephone workers have been wiring day and night getting service to those who lost it — even as their systems were straining under twice the normal traffic. Broadcast engineers have been working day and night to restore radio and television service, even as they mourned their lost colleagues.
The Circle Line sightseeing boats helped ferry people across the Hudson River on September 11, returning to the choking smoke and dust repeatedly to pick up new loads of passengers. Workers laid off by Metricom when it went bankrupt and shut down its wireless-Internet system helped get it back up and running to provide, among other information, hazardous-material data for Department of Environmental Protection workers.
Broadway’s performing and supporting unions agreed to a 25% pay cut to help keep plays running. When even that wasn’t enough to save “Kiss Me, Kate,” Joe Maher, the house carpenter at the Martin Beck Theater, came up with another idea. Everyone voluntarily took another 25% of their salaries (a total 50% cut) to buy tickets to the play and distribute them free to the rescue workers. “Kiss Me, Kate” is open.
Hooray for all of New York’s heroes! But, as I’ve hinted before, firefighters have always been, are now, and will probably always be my bravest heroes. On September 11, some of them started running UP 1,350 feet of stairs, TOWARDS the smoke and flames and structural damage, carrying perhaps 70 lbs. of gear, to try to rescue the people in the towers. What could be braver?
The New York Fire Department is now reexamining its policy of fighting ALL fires. They may now let some burn as too dangerous to fight. I cannot fault their reasoning in any way. But I find it frightening.
Before September 11, the funeral of a firefighter anywhere in the New York area followed a pretty standard procedure. Hundreds — or even thousands — of firefighters from many jurisdictions would attend in their dress uniforms, and they would give a white-gloved salute. A bugler would play Taps. A kilted pipe band would lead a funeral cortege, usually including fire trucks.
The New York Fire Department’s six-person ceremonial unit previously had to deal with making the arrangements for the funerals of only a few firefighters a year — and that would have been a bad year. On September 11, in one day, the department lost 343.
Mayor Giuliani has asked us ordinary New Yorkers to go to as many of their funerals as we can. It is no longer possible for hundreds of firefighters to attend.
Every day, the New York Times has been devoting a full page to short remembrances of the missing and the dead. The top of the page briefly lists the latest statistics. As of this morning, 380 bodies have been recovered, 321 of those have been identified, and perhaps 4,986 remain missing.
The rest of the page changes the numbers into people — twelve to sixteen of them a day — their names, their photos, their own headlines (“Church and a Little Beer,” “Living the Life She Wanted,” “Finding Opera Again”), and a few paragraphs to let us know who they were. These are not standard obituaries. They don’t list birth dates and locations, schools attended, and survivors. Rather, they provide anecdotes that give glimpses into individual lives. It will probably take a year for every one of the victims to appear in the paper.
It may also take a year to clear the debris from the site. We don’t even know yet when the fire will stop burning. An aircraft equipped with thermal instrumentation flies over the site twice daily to help the rescue workers identify hot spots. As of now, they are still extensive.
It may take two years to repair the crushed subway tunnel. Work cannot even begin until the fire is out and the debris is cleared.
An issue in the recent mayoral primary run-off debate was where to locate displaced businesses. One candidate favors rebuilding right on the site; the other favors relocation and points out that it could take years before replacement buildings are ready for occupancy. Again, the fire is still burning.
There seems to be a growing consensus among artists and architects on a quick-to-build memorial. It’s called “Towers of Light.” It would involve powerful lasers or other light sources forming the outlines of the towers and aimed straight up. New York’s normal dust would reflect the light, forming the outlines of the two buildings, continuing upwards. The developer who just signed a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center says he WILL rebuild (and has the money), but he doesn’t necessarily mean twin 110-story towers.
Few New Yorkers have even heard of the General Slocum disaster, even though it killed more than a thousand and wiped out an entire neighborhood. Some can tell you something about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, but probably not when it happened (1911), where (Washington & Greene Streets), or how many were killed (146). Not many remember the explosion of an illegal bomb factory in the Greenwich Village neighborhood in 1970, even though it demolished a building. Even the 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center has faded from memory. A lot of news happens in New York. New Yorkers tend to forget most of it quickly.
Will we soon forget the events of September 11? A part of me hopes so. I spoke to a friend today who has another friend whose home and business were both located near the World Trade Center. He’s physically unscathed, but he is hurt nonetheless.
New Yorkers will not be permitted to forget this news quickly. Perhaps 40 days is a decent mourning period, but we will be reminded for years — by the subway and by the skyline, if by nothing else — that this was not ordinary news.
Today, in Central Park, workers were putting up banners for the New York City Marathon. It never went past the World Trade Center (the annual Five-Borough Bike Tour does), but it begins on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where the twin towers were once clearly visible.
The leaves in the park are beginning to turn. In Central Park’s amazing microclimate (where a windy vortex blows against bikers and joggers from all directions), the leaves at the north end of the park seem to be changing color before those at the south end.
The marathon banners and fall leaves are normal for this time of year.
This year, that doesn’t seem right.