'Business as usual' the finest tribute

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 September, 2006, 12:00am


A tattered Stars and Stripes flag recovered from the rubble. A shattered fireman's oxygen tank and a collection of keys stamped with the World Trade Centre logo. All are on display near Ground Zero this week as a reminder of the day five years ago when terrorists struck.

For many New Yorkers they are symbols of proud resistance, proof that a city can pick itself up from the depths of despair and rebuild into something stronger and more vibrant.

But for tens of thousands of others caught up in the misery and aftermath of that terrible day - the rescue workers, the families of the dead and those who escaped the twin towers before they fell - they are a painful reminder of what was lost. New York has moved on without them, and the city's reflection on the fifth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre merely reopens the wounds.

'Unfortunately, recovery is not as simple as rebuilding and putting people back in apartments and offices,' said Gerald McCleery, associate executive director of the Mental Health Association of New York City.

'For those who haven't resolved the initial trauma of 9/11, it's as if time stands still. Any subsequent stress, such as an anniversary, can make things worse.'

Calls to the association's hotline are still coming at a rate of 8,000 a month, compared to 3,000 a month before 2001, and more than 15,000 people have enrolled or inquired about the September 11 mental health and substance abuse programme. Tellingly, rescue and recovery workers make up more than a quarter of those recently seeking counselling.

'The heroism label is taken to heart and maybe some of those folks feel ashamed in asking for help,' Dr McCleery said. 'It helps explain their delay in calling. But it changes over time. Early on we had a large number of calls from immediate family members, then a significant number of evacuees. They'd call and say, 'I thought time would help but I feel worse than I used to'. It's a common script.'

Many who survived the attacks, such as Gerry Bogacz, a transportation planning manager who fled the 82nd floor of the north tower and reached safety just four minutes before it collapsed, testify to the slow healing process.

'To expect to get back to the way you were is unrealistic,' he said. 'I haven't been above the 30th floor in any building and I haven't flown anywhere since. I jump at any loud noise.'

But Mr Bogacz, who helped form the Survivors' Network to provide support for anyone who witnessed or survived the attacks, believes strength of spirit guided the city and residents through the most testing time in its history.

'The destruction touched everyone,' he said. 'How the city reacted was amazing. People kept coming to work every day and how New Yorkers reached out to each other was something to see. New York has a reputation as an impersonal, unfriendly place but this brought out the best in people. Economically and socially, the city is vibrant again.'

Statistics suggest the city has more than recovered. The tourism bureau predicts that 44.4 million visitors will come this year, up almost 2 million from last year and 9 million more than 2002.

Those visitors spent US$22.8 billion last year, compared to the US$14.1 billion of 2002, a huge slice of an economy to which confidence, and business leaders, have returned. Property prices and wages are at record highs and figures show there are 1.6 million more jobs than a year ago, mostly in construction, tourism and professional services. But challenges remain in many other areas, according to Meghan French, director of the Centre for Downtown New York at Pace University, close to Ground Zero. The centre was set up to promote discussion about the future of lower Manhattan and to monitor recovery efforts.

'The city is making improvements every day, and will continue to rebound, but there are unanswered questions,' she said. 'There are the environmental consequences, questions about preparedness. How have people who were involved recovered, emotionally and financially?' City leaders are among the experts discussing such issues at a series of conferences called Aftershock at the university this week.

New York will commemorate the day with an anniversary service at Ground Zero, where this year spouses and partners will follow tradition and read the names of the 2,749 - including 343 firefighters and 70 police officers - who died at the World Trade Centre.

Those remembering the dead will see a site being transformed, with cranes and construction workers beginning to reappear in significant numbers after years of argument and delay.

Yet for many New Yorkers, two big concerns remain: Could it happen again? And if it did, how would the city cope?

Emergency services, which learned many lessons on September 11, say they are ready. Improved rescue techniques have been incorporated into training, and new equipment will help avoid a repeat of some of the failures of that day, such as the inability of firefighters to talk to each other because their radios would not work in high-rise buildings. 'If it happened again, people would respond in the same way but with a lot more support for victims,' Mr Bogacz said.

On Monday, America's busiest city will stop once more to remember its fallen, then honour them in the best way it knows how - pressing on with the recovery, with business as usual.

'It's going to be an emotional day,' said Miet Mohamed, a taxi driver who recalls seeing flames billowing from the north tower on September 11, 2001. 'But we got through and we have to move on.

'The city might have recovered. But it's never going to forget.'