Terrorism has crushed the World Trade Centre, but not New York’s spirit
“FOR your safety, leave.” This was the urgent message broadcast by police in lower Manhattan on the morning after the World Trade Centre was destroyed by suicidal terrorists. In its own strange way, the need for such an announcement demonstrated the resilience of New Yorkers. Rather than fleeing the disaster, they were already hoping to return to their homes or offices, to volunteer their help, or to gaze in awe at the gigantic funeral pyre that used to be the symbol of New York’s financial pre-eminence.
Within hours of the attack the city had become a police state. All the bridges and tunnels giving access to Manhattan were sealed; you could leave but not get back. By the next day, Manhattan was a series of zones of varying degrees of militarisation. Most extreme was the southern tip of the island, including the financial district, where only rescue workers were allowed in. Most of this area was carpeted with several inches of ash, probably including asbestos. Thick smoke still poured from the gap that used to be the twin towers. The only sounds were of sirens and bulldozers. It is likely to remain that way for days to come. Normality returned block by block as you moved uptown. By midtown, streets were quite crowded, and restaurants were doing a brisk trade.
If the terrorists thought they would trigger a widespread panic, they failed. Quite the opposite occurred. New York rose to the dreadful challenge. Cab drivers ripped out seats to ferry victims from the scene. Hundreds of thousands of workers remained calm as they evacuated downtown, walking quietly uptown and across bridges, even as the towers collapsed behind them. So many people offered to donate blood that many were turned away. Those lucky enough to get service on their cell-phone were sharing it with others desperate to contact loved ones. The worst incident — a Middle-Eastern-looking taxi driver being screamed at — would sadly count as normality on any other day.
The next week will test this resilience. Everyone will know someone who has died. (In this respect, the destruction of the World Trade Centre will surely exceed other epochal events in the city’s history, such as the sinking of the Titanic.) Two industries have been hit particularly hard — finance and the rescue services (police and fire). New York’s finest lived, and died, in keeping with their reputation. Financial workers descending stairs 35 storeys up the World Trade Centre tell of fire-fighters carrying heavy equipment climbing past them up into the gloom. Probably none of them made it out.
With hindsight, the emergency response made the death-toll higher. Many who obeyed the first building-wide announcements to remain calmly in their offices died as a result of that decision. Thankfully, many headed straight for the exit. The plan was that only people in the floors immediately above and below the fire were to be evacuated, so as to avoid a stampede.
Those in charge never imagined that the building, designed to survive the impact of an air crash, could collapse. But the terrorists used aircraft bound for the west coast and laden with fuel. They generated such heat when they exploded that steel girders supporting the building melted. Collapse was so unthinkable that the fire department’s command centre was set up too close and was crushed when the building fell, killing senior officers.
It remains to be seen if anybody deserves blame for this costly error. What is clear is that New York had devoted at least as much hard thought to responding to terrorist attack as any other city. Emergency procedures were greatly improved after the bomb attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993 — which killed six people and injured around 1,000, and made it clear to officials that things could have been much worse. Better lighting in stairways in the twin towers certainly saved lives. Plans for smoothly co-ordinating emergency services were hampered when the mayor’s state-of-the-art office of emergency management had to flee to a fire station after being evacuated from a building that later collapsed.
The mayor himself, Rudolph Giuliani, was an inspirational figure. He was on the scene immediately, and came close to being killed in the collapse. His personality can sometimes grate, but here he rallied rescue workers, spoke wisely from the heart, and alongside his old foe, Governor George Pataki, embodied the bloodied but unbowed spirit of New York. The city, he said, would come out all the stronger. He will have won back at a stroke much of the affection lost by his misjudgments over policing and his personal life in recent years. And as Mike Tomasky, a columnist at New York Magazine puts it: “With dozens of freshly buried police officers under the rubble, I don’t think that police brutality will now be top of anyone’s mind.”
Under Mr Giuliani New York has been a city reborn, enjoying until recently a booming economy and dramatic reductions in crime. Term limits will force him out of office in January. The primaries to select his replacement were due to take place on the day of the attack, and were swiftly postponed. New Yorkers may now wish that the election itself were put off indefinitely. Certainly, the tone of the election may now change.
The irony, says Mark Schmitt, a former political adviser to Bill Bradley, a Democratic senator and presidential candidate, is that until now the city’s mayoral hopefuls have assumed New Yorkers want someone different from Mr Giuliani. They have thus distanced their personal styles from his. “Now everyone is starting to say; ‘Thank God Giuliani was there: we need another like him.’”
The worry is that the destruction of the World Trade Centre will come to symbolise the end of the good times under Mr Giuliani, and the beginning of a backslide. Has the city’s good luck run out? Mr Giuliani has proclaimed “business as usual”, and urged New Yorkers to go about eating and shopping as if it were any other day. He has also set up an emergency “economic development task-force”, including prominent business leaders, to send out a signal of confidence. A big challenge will be to reassure tourists, who during the summer were flocking to the city as never before — although this is likely to depend more on the actions of the federal government, which has to prevent a repeat of this attack, than anything New York can do.
The recovery of the city will not be complete while a gaping hole remains in its famous skyline. One option is to build a memorial, like that in Oklahoma, commemorating those murdered by Timothy McVeigh. Mr Giuliani says that some substantial building will be built on the site, though its precise shape remains to be decided. Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, suggests rebuilding the Twin Towers, either identically or in some new version, as a symbol of defiance. “Its destruction was a horrible act, and we should show that we can’t be defeated.” That looks unlikely; but it would reflect the current indomitable spirit of a city that will never give in.