Connecting In New York

At 8:55 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, Andrea Popovich, 24, had her last cynical thought for the year. As she emerged from a subway station near her office in downtown Manhattan, she saw a crowd gaping up at the sky. A woman appeared to be praying, and Popovich, with the generous spirit that characterizes New Yorkers who find someone blocking their path to work, thought to herself, what now? A cloud in the shape of Jesus? Then she turned around and looked up.

At that moment the sky was filling, invisibly, with phone calls from people trapped in the burning tower. At first the messages were reassuring. "Mom, don't worry," Joyce Carpeneto said in a message left on her mother's answering machine at 9 a.m. "A plane hit the World Trade Center. We are going to evacuate the building. Now pray for us." A half hour later, Daniel Lopez called home and left a message for his wife, Elizabeth: "Hi, hon. I'm OK. There was an explosion. I made it to the 78th floor. I'm helping people to get out. I'll see you soon." As the minutes passed, though, the calls grew more desperate. "My office is filled with smoke," Frederick Varacchi told his sister from the 105th floor of the North Tower. "I can't see. Please tell the children I love them." Mostly, the people on the other end of the call had the same reaction: hang up the stupid phone and get out of there! But as the flames closed in, the people in the building kept dialing, seeking to prolong the last precious moment of human contact.

As the office workers streamed down the stairs toward safety, they passed a steady procession of firefighters tramping their way toward the fire, carrying their equipment: 50 feet of 2.5-inch hose for the men from the engine companies, axes and hooks and life-saving gear for those from the ladder trucks. Nine a.m. is when shifts change at most firehouses, and so, by chance, many companies had more than a full complement of men on hand when the disaster struck. Those who were stationed nearest the World Trade Center and arrived before 9 may have had a better chance of surviving, because they were sent up into the North Tower, which was hit first but remained standing about a half hour longer than its twin. After the South Tower fell, the firefighters were ordered out of the North Tower, where a command post had been established on the 35th floor. That left just enough time for a firefighter carrying only his gear to reach the ground safely, but those helping injured or handicapped civilians down the stairs couldn't move that quickly. Whole companies of firefighters went down with the building. For days after the collapse, rumors circulated about a Port Authority police officer who was on a high floor of one of the towers and survived somehow, riding the wreckage down as it fell. Even detectives interviewing relatives passed along the story, encouraging them to believe there was hope for their loved ones. But it was untrue.

In the crowd was a pregnant young woman being helped along by a man. "He was trying to keep her upright," Popovich recalled. "I stared at them until her legs gave out, and that's when it kicked in." Popovich rushed to the woman's side and helped make her comfortable on the sidewalk while someone looked for a police officer.

"My baby isn't moving," the woman said anxiously.
Popovich tried to think of a response.
"Well," she said lightly, "he's just too scared to move."

Suddenly, everyone in New York City was trying to find someone else. Ambulances converged on the scene, looking for victims; parents rushed to schools, looking for their children; husbands and wives waited anxiously by the phone, counting off the minutes and weighing them against the time it should have taken to walk down from a certain office floor. And even while buildings burned all around them, police and firefighters began attacking still-steaming heaps of rubble with their bare hands, looking for people to save. Early on, though, it was clear that they would be bringing out many more bodies, and body parts, than injured victims; the towers fell straight down, so there were relatively few injuries to people on the periphery, and almost no survivors from inside the perimeter of destruction. Like the military, firefighters are fanatical about retrieving the bodies of their comrades. The sight of a helmet in the rubble would bring firefighters on the run--especially if, by chance, others from the same unit who had escaped the collapse were on the scene.

With infinite patience the bodies were disentangled from the rubble, disinterred from their graves of dust and ashes and placed in body bags. "We try to do it as gently as possible, so that nothing happens," said Tony Anzelone, a registered nurse. "You got to have respect. It was a human being, no matter what they look like now. At 9 o'clock this morning, they were a living, breathing person just going to work." The last people to handle the bodies were the forensic pathologists at the Medical Examiner's Office, who were responsible for identifying the victims and issuing death certificates. That work is directed by Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, the first deputy chief medical examiner, who worked 24 hours straight beginning Tuesday morning and then began a series of 12-hour days that stretch ahead of him for months. "We're not doing autopsies," Flomenbaum said, "because the cause and manner of death are not an issue. And the large number of victims. I'm trained as a forensic pathologist. There's absolutely nothing here that I haven't seen before. But the quantities are beyond description."

Yes, you are--even in New York, a city in which the inescapable press of humanity creates a mind-set in which the instinctive reaction to a fire on the 80th floor is let me know when it reaches the ground. The fire has reached the ground, and New Yorkers find themselves reaching out to one another--in fear, in pain, in hope and in love--as they seldom have before. The arrogant wheeler-dealer ordering a $600 bottle of wine with dinner--already starting to go out of fashion in the last year--has vanished utterly as an icon, replaced by the laconic firefighter who risks his life for just about that much money per week. The city that was vanished in an immense orange fireball over lower Manhattan, the light from which is now radiating far out into space, accompanied by the faint electronic echo of a thousand people murmuring into their telephones, "I love you."