The View From The Empire State Building

On Sept. 11, from my bedroom window two blocks away, I watched the collapse of New York's tallest buildings, the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Now when I go to work, it's at the city's once-again-tallest building, the 102-story Empire State Building.

A few years ago, when I first joined the many thousands who work in the art-deco spire, my view took in all of lower Manhattan, stretched out in a shimmering arc. With the enthusiasm of the transplanted Tennessean that I am, I relished all opportunities to drag even unwilling visitors to the top--especially at sunset, when the pink and orange sky put the Twin Towers, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island into relief.

Since the attacks, my office is literally the pinnacle of the Manhattan skyline. As U.S. officials warn daily of new terrorist attacks on the horizon, there is anxiety about tall buildings in general, but about the Empire State Building in particular--a fact city officials try to overcome as they entreat visitors to return to New York. The 86th floor Observatory was recently re-opened for tourists on weekends only.

Before Sept. 11, home was atop a century-old building on Liberty Street in the shadow of the World Trade Center, with south views of Wall Street and west views of the Twin Towers and the Hudson River. That day, I watched our neighborhood transformed hellishly as the towers in turn collapsed in a roaring storm of debris and fire. Then the sky, even outside my 30th floor apartment, turned--and stayed--impenetrably black, signaling time to evacuate. Along with so many others, we escaped through blocks of ash and dust, and eventually found a midtown ferry to New Jersey (where I have lived since). On the way out of the city, I saw my office building and worried that it might be next. At the same time, I regarded the office as a refuge--and wished I could be in familiar surroundings with my family of colleagues.

On the morning I first returned to work after the terrorist attacks, CNN was broadcasting live from the Empire State Building's top floor. Larry King mused with Regis Philbin that "it's now the tallest building in New York, again." Philbin's reply: "When I looked out of my window that night, Larry, I could see the Empire State Building but not the Twin Towers. And it looked kind of lonely up there to me."

I overcome my jitters to go to work, but we all have plenty of time to prepare mentally for the worst as we endure, with unexpected appreciation, hour-long waits to pass through new building security. During one of the frequent bomb threats (the building has had three full evacuations in past weeks), I saw fire trucks pull up in front. Looking out my window, I caught myself noticing with relief a terrace a few stories below, a jump I calculated I could survive--especially if I buy a rope ladder. None of us in the building paid much attention to terraces before. Last week, a police truck that pulled up in front of the building, after several tenants reported receiving suspicious-looking envelopes--including one with a Pakistani postmark but no return address. So far, no traces of anthrax have been found, but everyone remains on edge.

Shortly after the Trade Center attacks, it was reported that the terrorists had considered other city targets including the United Nations. We were relieved that our building was apparently not on the list. According to The New York Times, the terrorists were interested in "blasting and destroying" embassies and "attacking vital economic centers." One of my colleagues observed that this was better than word that "whatever the tallest building is, that's what they want to blow up." Or that, "Art-deco is against the will of Allah." Still, my husband insists he'll only begin to rest more easily when the landlord installs a surface-to-air missile battery on the Observatory.

Another colleague who watched in horror on September 11, as the first hijacked plane swerved around the Empire State Building at 8:40 a.m. to fly straight down to the Twin Towers, feels safe in the building only after 9 a.m. We comfort ourselves with equally reassuring irrationality that our building "was already hit by a plane"--in 1945, an Army Air Corps B-25 crashed into the building at the 79th floor. Fourteen people died, but the structural integrity was not affected. And of course there is hardly a trace left of the wanton antics of that giant gorilla, King Kong.

Today, I remain an involuntary "refugee" of sorts in green and bucolic New Jersey. On my long new commute by train to the office each morning, the Empire State Building draws all eyes because it again stands for the New York skyline. At night, it displays its patriotism by being lit red, white and blue. Perhaps if I didn't work there, I'd be more reassured by the new symbolism of my building.