Life On The Knife’s Edge

New York, the City that never sleeps. Fear will do that.

A City Occupied By Soldiers & Fear.

Grief wasn’t the only emotion transforming the city. Fear was also New Yorker’s  omnipresent companion during those first few weeks, indeed for months. The city seemed mesmerized by fear, a fear you couldn’t leave behind because it was always in your face. It was there in the smoking ruins, dually reminding New Yorkers what had occurred and what could happen elsewhere in NYC if and when a second attack materialized. It was on the city streets guarded by Uzi-equipped Army and ATF swat teams, making it all so transparent that the Federal Government shared the citizenry’s paranoia concerns.

The city was converted into a giant army staging area and barracks. Acres of olive-green army tents spouted up overnight in city parks and other open spaces. The last time there were so many soldiers in the city was during the British troop’s Revolutionary War occupation of Manhattan. It felt wrong, and everyone knew it. New Yorkers and soldiers do not belong occupying the same common ground.

Naturally, the residents not only understood why the soldiers had to be there, but also wanted them there and were grateful for their presence. Nonetheless, that didn’t remove the skewed upside-down wrongness of this abnormality. Plus, if there were any remaining doubts about NYC’s dire situation vis-à-vis future terrorist threats, this overwhelming presence of armed forces on city streets ended any such naivety.

You could see the fear in the cowed faces of the crowd, eyes darting everywhere for anything out of the ordinary. Strangely, you could even hear it in its eerie silence. Fearful people are not a talkative lot, and you cannot believe how spooky it is to be on a subway car filled with 60, 70 New Yorkers and for it to be so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. NYC was injured, and it was all so close to breaking. Many New Yorkers were just one hit away from leaving the city. And if New Yorkers started pulling out of the city the economic consequences to the rest of the country would be unprecedented.

Of course, if we realized New York’s wobbly post-September’s stability, surely the terrorists, masters of psychological terror, would have expected this easily predictable phenomenon. It was only natural, therefore, that a group that could pull off Sept. 11th would have the capacity and the foresight to set up a timely second wave. It’s also insightful to remember that in those early days of the aftermath of Sept. 11th, many (including myself) were attributing almost a comic-bookish supervillain evil genius status to Bid Laden and Al Qaeda. We knew there wouldn’t be any more passenger plane attacks for obvious reasons, but other attacks were surely possible. Any follow-through could have done the trick, a truck/car bomb, a group of snipers, or even a lone wolf terrorist suicide bomber or two. Personally, I thought it would come in the form of  the garden-variety truck bomb type.

I continued with my everyday life but kept a watch out for the vehicles likely to be used in such an attack, holding my breath passing unmarked delivery vans and small cargo trucks. In the end, my heightened sense of anxiety was short-lived. There’s a problem with being nervous about windowless vehicles in NYC: too many of them. It’s impossible to keep yourself on high alert all the time without clear evidence of danger, and in a short time, I stopped worrying about car/truck bombs in New York. It’s like changing a tire on a narrow shoulder of a busy, semi-truck-infested interstate. At first, it’s unnerving, but after a few minutes of exposure, you hardly think about it.

Not If, When

With all the trepidation, indeed, as far as I was concerned, with the certainty of a second wave of attack, the only reason it made sense to stay in NYC is that the law of probabilities while working against the city works out well for individuals. After all, it’s a big city. You’re statistically safe, even at or near the danger zone. Someone else will be the victim, not you. It sounds cold, but it’s much more realistic to recognize your probable invulnerability from harm than to shake in fear about your far-fetched vulnerability. I’m sure of two predictions for the next year: I won’t die in a terrorist, nor will I win the Mega-Million lottery. One is about the statistical equivalent of the other.

A person on a flight on a U.S. airline on Sept. 11th at the time of the hijacking would seem to have been in a very precarious situation but in reality, even flying on that most wrong of days at the worst of all times was still statistically safe. There were 5,000 U.S. commercial flights in the air when four of them were hijacked, which is a probability of death of less than 1 in 1000.

This same principle of relative statistical immunity held for those working  in the defined danger zone of the five blocks surrounding the WTC. Two thousand nine hundred lives were lost out of the quarter-million workers in the immediate area. That adds up to a survival rate of about 99%. Even if you had the extreme misfortunate of being in the statistically small group of people working in the WTC you were part of a group of roughly 50,000 people, and even with two commercial jets slamming into your building you had a 94% probability of survival.

The point is not to be callous about the losses but to point out that it’s difficult to lose one’s life in a terrorist attack, even one as deadly as Sept.11th. I used these arguments repeatedly during those early post-September days to convince faltering friends and co-workers (and myself) that it was rational to stay and work in NYC.

Heads Down is the Heads Up Way to Evacuate

On our first day back to work, there was a major bomb scare in Grand Central Train Station and the surrounding buildings (us). It didn’t help our fragile psyches that as we evaluated our building security directed us not only to run but to “duck and keep our heads down” as well. The instructions’ urgency and specificity made some people fear a blast was imminent. Few ventured back to the office that day.
The second day started a bit more organized. To facilitate communication and to lessen confusion, we received instructions on where to meet after an evacuation. Sure enough, within a few hours, there was another bomb threat (in two weeks we had four bomb scare evacuations). As we evacuated, I heard a woman crying, stammering out between sobs that she couldn’t take this anymore. Her friends comforted her and walked her out ahead of us. Thirty minutes later, at our designated meeting location, waiting for the green light to return, I overheard a conversation one programmer was having with a member of senior management. He had just finished talking to his wife, and they had decided that it was crazy for him to be in NYC in such an unstable environment. He was going home and wasn’t returning until he felt safe.

He had plenty of company, many of who took their concerns to the next step. Small bond firms across the river in New Jersey began attracting high-quality employees in those first few post-Sept 11th weeks, people who wouldn’t have given such firms the time of day before September. We lost one of our best salesmen to the siren of serenity and security beckoning him across the Hudson. A bitter brew of fear, trepidation, and vulnerability was percolating in the psyche of many of the city’s citizenry. NYC hadn’t fallen, but it was faltering. You could hear the knocking of her shaking knees.

Much to Fear, Including Fear Itself.

 

Washington D.C.
FBI National Press Office 10/11/01
“Certain information, while not specific as to target, gives the government reason to believe that there may be additional terrorist attacks within the United States and against U.S. interests overseas over the next several days. The FBI has again alerted all local law enforcement to be on the highest alert and we call on all people to immediately notify the FBI and local law enforcement of any unusual or suspicious activity.”

The first official terror alert came about 2 in the afternoon and within an hour 90% of the desk had made an early departure. People took this first alert, very seriously. “Why would they make such an announcement if they didn’t feel an attack was imminent?” I had some work to do, so I stayed until about 5:30, but as I stepped out, I could feel the difference in the streets. NYC had been subdued since Sept. 11th, but now it was outright downcast. Very few people talked at the train station or on the trains.

For commuters from the outer boroughs, relief came in three stages. The first stage of relief came as the train departs from Grand Central, thus leaving behind the epi-center of potential terrorist attack locations [Grand Central may as well had a bulls-eye painted on its landmark clock so high was its’ potentiality as a target]. The second stage came with leaving Manhattan behind, which would provide relief on two fronts. One, they were out of Manhattan (the most likely target area of an NYC terrorist attack). Second, in leaving Manhattan, they were safe across the (also high on the terrorists’ possible hit list) tunnel or bridge crossing (all exits in and out of Manhattan necessitate a river crossing). Once in the outer borough, you could see the clenched jaws release a bit, although the real relief would only come with an individual’s arrival at their home neighborhood.
If New Yorkers seemed scared the first few hours of the alert, they seemed almost cowed by the next morning. After a night of listening to newscasters, various media talking heads rehash over and over the litany of possible second wave terrorist attacks, coupled with the exclamation point on the alacrity of the alarm put forth later that evening by Bush in a prime-time news (“scare”) conference, the city seemed to shiver in its naked vulnerability. The trains were ghostly quiet, but I remember most people’s eyes; they looked glassy. Glassy furtive eyes assessing each person’s potentiality as a terrorist and each bag for its bomb or chemical agent carrying capacity.

This real type of gut-wrenching fear probably lasted for about two to three days until people, no longer mentally able to continue with the vigilance that seemed warranted by the first alert, gradually dropped the high anxiety and started getting back to our new normal life.

An Attack From Within.

The return towards normalcy proved short-lived. In our new offices, we have computer terminals spewing out news bulletins and TV monitors set up about every 50 feet and every other row. When breaking news happens, we get it quickly and simultaneously across the trading floor.

So on October 13th (the American Media case has broken earlier in the month) the breaking news that anthrax was found a few blocks away at Tom Brokaw’s office was met by an immediate and chilling collective gasp from the floor, followed by silence for a second or two as people assessed the implications (although I swear you could hear hundreds of brains clicking into high gear), and then the high hum of murmuring spread across the trading floor which soon grew into a low roar. All was not well in NYC.

In the days and weeks that followed, the anthrax hysteria level ebbed and flowed, depending on the news. And as if the actual cases weren’t bad enough, the city was peppered with false alarms and scares. One troubling moment was on a Thursday afternoon at about 4:00 when Liz got a call from a cousin who worked downtown who tearfully told her the FBI had quarantined and imposed a lockdown on her building because of expected anthrax contamination. They had discovered a fine white powder substance in the company’s mailroom and reported several people stricken. Liz’s poor cousin was frantic, and Liz could do little to comfort her. As Liz told us the story, the world we lived in seemed to spin out of control. Hours later, the lockdown ended for her cousin after preliminary testing indicated the powder was harmless. Days later, we got the complete story, and it was comical and disturbing at the same time. It turns out that someone from the mailroom had opened an envelope in a crowded area and a cloud of powder mushroomed from it, engulfing several workers, two of whom crumpled to the floor. The substance turned out to be baby powder. The crumpled workers? They had fainted in a collective panic attack.

Although it would be several more months before the anthrax contamination stopped, as the crisis unfolded, the fear lessened as it became increasing apparent the threat was domestic in its origination and the danger, while selectively deadly, was not widespread.

Alerts, Part II – Official and Whispered Varieties.

The second official alert came about three weeks after the first alert and about two weeks after the rash of Anthrax outbreaks in NYC and Washington. New York’s nerves were settling. The apprehension caused by the first alert was fading as the immediacy of the threat it purported passed. At first brush, the second alert wasn’t nearly as scary as the first. Sure, many on the desk were leaving early to avoid the prime-time rush hour bombing window, but we weren’t dwelling on it throughout the day.

But a new twist developed on the second day into the newest alert. One of our salesmen had many buddies in the police and fire departments. One of them informed him the feds were telling them they were receiving credible information indicating that NYC’s massive bridge and tunnel system could be the next target. (I took it seriously because on the morning of 9/11, this salesman had received and yelled out the preposterous (and ignored) warning that the tower could go down and that was before the second hit had even occurred.) The specificity of this non-public alert would have been an alarming proposition for the millions of commuters into Manhattan (except they weren’t blessed/burdened/cursed with our inside information). In my mind, the only bombing scenario scarier than being on one of the large bridges spanning across the rivers as it’s being attacked would be having the river directly over one’s head as one of the four tunnels leading into Manhattan was bombed.

The tip quite spooked most on the desk. While I was startled, I also felt relief that I didn’t have to face any of these “dangerous” river crossings (I had just moved back to my downtown apartment). In fact I was too relieved. I felt I was succumbing to the fear of a danger that probably did not even exist and I didn’t like that. In the end, my reprieve was short-lived as for the next two weeks, I escorted woman co-workers across the river, got off at the first stop on the other side, and took the next Manhattan-bound train back. What could I do for them if there was an attack? Absolutely nothing, but they were comforted, and the act enabled me to fend off falling victim to fear of the improbable, although it remained a pitched battle with no clear victor.

The second “whispered” alert we got was from another of my salesman whose ex-college roommate worked for a DC law firm that did work for the Justice Department. My salesman’s friend passed on information that their sources at the Justice Department said there was credible evidence suggesting that Grand Central Terminal (across the street from us) could be the next target. The problem with the information was that my salesman’s friend who received the news didn’t hear it directly, nor did John’s buddy talk directly to the guy who knew the source. So, the information had three degrees of separation when we received it and therefore was not credible as far as I was concerned.

John told many on the desk of the “heads up” warning he had received but, after consultation with me, did not share the information with Liz and Anna, who I felt would only be frightened of what I considered an improbable event. Good intentions? Sure. Bad decision? Definitely! Later, Liz and Anna got wind of the “heads up” anyway and were furious that they weren’t told earlier. They felt John had forgotten about them or just wasn’t concerned about their well-being, and the next morning was verbally letting him have it as I walked into the office. Sidebar: Liz, who is a good friend of mine, was very grateful for my looking out for her and some of the other woman at work, especially during the office evacuation when everyone “just skedaddled”. When I spoke to her on Sept. 12th she told me that her parents wanted to meet me to thank me in person for helping their daughter. It made me feel good even though I realized the tremendous trauma Liz experienced that day had completely overplayed in her mind the role I had in “rescuing” her that day.

Now, seven weeks later, Liz was about to meet my Dr. Jekyll to go along with the Mr. Hyde she was so grateful to. I became furious when I heard her dissing John. I knew, because I was part of it, that it was a lot harder and that much more thought went into not telling her than “that nobody cared” (plus it turned out that they had over-reacted just as I feared by walking 12 blocks out of their way to avoid Grand Central). But instead of simply explaining why she wasn’t told, I chose a different, angrier, dumber direction (more Jeffish, if you would). I self-righteously lectured her about my refusal to be part of this epidemic spreading of rumors. That it was this entire rumor-milling business that was contributing to the atmosphere of fear in NYC. I said it was time for her to end her expectations that everyone else in the office owed her a personal safe passage out in case of an emergency. We’re here to work and to make money, not to look out for each other’s back. That any action to help others instead of just ourselves is a personal decision stemming not from an obligation, but a choice, including my actions on September 11th. Liz’s justifiably angry response: Well, next time don’t help me then! My response to my Hispanic friend? “Adios!” (accompanied by the same stupid smart-ass smirk lost on 9/11, but unfortunately now reacquired).

Liz and I made up a few days later once our respective hot tempers had quieted down. I remain ashamed of my boorish and cruel behavior towards Lizzie that day. But I tell the story in part because it happened, whether I wished it had it or not, but also because it brings to light yet another dilemma that those trying days brought to us. Ethically, what is the right response to the receipt of information that you believe to be nothing more than a rumor? Do you withhold the information from others because you are so confident in your threat assessment skills that you can decide for them what information they should receive, or at least receive from you? Or do you indiscriminately pass on all you hear to everyone because each person has the right to decide for him or herself which alerts are warranted and which are not?

Obviously, the answer is somewhere between, but what a narrow tightrope it can be. Fear is very complex and insidious in its workings and its tentacles reach into the office, into one’s home, and into our relationships as well.