City of Ghosts

100 Minutes of Tragedy That Will Haunt Us All

So, too, for the city's then small Honduran community after a jealous spurned lover set fire to a crowded illegal Bronx social club called "Happy Land" in 1990, killing 87. A single DC-8 carried 50 bodies back to the island for burial. The event still haunts the city's Honduran families, who attend an annual memorial mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church on Crotona Parkway and then walk to the site of the fire, where a monument has been erected.

Haunted as well are the city neighborhoods that took the brunt of the deadly crack cocaine epidemic in the late '80s and early '90s, when the city's murder rate crested at 2245. In the largely African American community of East New York, Brooklyn, there were 126 murders in 1993. Death came so often and so regularly in such close quarters that it was impossible to find anyone who had not suffered the violent loss of a friend or family member.

None match the vast new army of ghosts created within 100 lethal minutes between the moment the first plane struck to the collapse of the second tower on the otherwise resplendent morning of September 11.

One stands tall, two fade into history.
Illustration by Sean Beavers
One stands tall, two fade into history.

How many died? The numbers, made purposefully vague by authorities fearful for public morale, are a moving target. On Monday, the estimate of those missing or dead stood at 5623. Gathered together, the victims would overflow the bleachers in Yankee Stadium.

But if the horrifying numbers are still imprecise, the ghosts have already assembled. They are there in the hundreds of posters created by distraught family members and friends, taped to trees, telephone booths, mailboxes, bus shelters, and vans. More than 1000 have been attached to the plywood "Wall of Prayer" at the entrance to Bellevue Hospital, just south of the grim East 30th Street offices of the city's medical examiner, where refrigerated trucks hold corpses and body parts. An astonishing number of the posters are computer-generated snapshots: pictures from weddings, from vacation cruises, from barbecues. Some are of businessmen and women posing proudly in front of the tall buildings that have become their likely tomb. Some, of parents with their children, read "Hurry Home Daddy."

The names are a New York symphony: Foti, Costello, Puckett, Barbella, Luparello, Morris, Faragher, Zinzi, Smith, Kumar, Ramos, Supinski, Bergstein, Barnes, Cho, Callahan, DeSantis, Wong, Dedvukaj, Villanueva, Cahill, Traina, Zeng. Even Rockefeller.

Likewise, the colors of the faces range from pale to dark, with every shade in between. Did the attackers imagine their victims? Did they picture the heathens they sought to punish as one class, one race, one color? If so, they failed miserably. The roster of the dead and the missing is inexorably democratic: There are investment bankers, secretaries, electricians, janitors, cops, firemen, photographers, delivery workers, bond brokers, cooks, waiters, dishwashers, lawyers, painters, and accountants.

The hijackers, who were in their twenties and thirties, apparently did have one thing in common with many of their victims: youth. "I had a very young staff," said Howard Lutnick, chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond trading company, as he tearfully described losing more than 600 of his employees.

Turn back the clock, omit those dreadful minutes, and what would everyone be doing? What would be happening in these towers and streets minus the deadly debris, crushing rubble, and the bleak gray carpet?

We know that Eliezer Jimenez, 38, would be cooking at Windows on the World, the famous restaurant where tables were arranged to afford a glorious view for all diners. That bond broker Jason Defazio, 29, might be opening the pictures from his wedding three months ago after getting a seat on the express bus from Staten Island to his job at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of Tower One. That Christopher Duffy, all of 23 years old, would be anticipating a Saturday night beer at Tin Lizzie's on Second Avenue with his fellow Villanova graduates after he finished work at Keefe Bruyette & Woods. That Elizabeth Holmes, 42, of Harlem, her long braids swinging, would be coming up from the IRT and starting her day with a cup of tea at her desk.

We know that the saloon next to Windows on the World, modestly dubbed The Greatest Bar on Earth, would be gearing up for Mambo night or Funk night or Swing night, anticipating the usual throng of Wall Street workers and city employees, all dressed for the occasion in "cocktail casual."

We know that Borders Books & Music at 5 World Trade Center, overlooking Vesey Street, would be preparing to host that week's guest author, browsers moving through its aisles. That the aroma from the Krispy Kreme store next door would be seducing many through its doors. We know that the concourse below the towers—the city's largest indoor mall—would be filled with people, many of them from among the 50,000 daily commuters exiting the subways, or rising on a massive bank of escalators from the New Jersey PATH trains. We know that the city's shrewdest clothing shoppers would be eagerly pawing through the racks of Century 21 across Church Street in the old bank building, where Polo shirts or, on occasion, a Galliano gown, were savagely reduced from their original prices.

We know that people would still be talking about the series of outdoor summer concerts on the plaza, where musicians John Gorka, Mark Lindsay, Savoy Brown, and the David Cedeno Orchestra all provided free entertainment under the stars. Visitors would still flock to the windswept five-acre plaza, named after Port Authority leader and Trade Center pioneer Austin J. Tobin. Believe it or not, designers had St. Mark's Square in Venice in mind when they laid it out, encircling it with a huge Gothic arcade.

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