From the Margins Erased

When the Towers Fell, Homeless People Disappeared. Their Friends Are Still Searching.

There was this one lady named Arlene, and another named Maryann. A shoeshine guy named Jack. A guy named Keith. An elderly woman named Rose sat by the PATH train bathroom. Marvin, a tall, gray-haired man with a dark complexion, stood around tower one every morning, there by the N train, regular as a dripping faucet.

Carlos, a tall Jamaican some called Ras, wore his hair in dreadlocks and thoroughly cursed any social worker who tried to move him. When people asked him his problem, he rubbed his goatee and explained that it wasn't homelessness, it was spiritual. Once in a while, the neatly dressed beanpole Mr. Mann came striding through the concourse. The self-appointed mayor of the World Trade Center, he assigned himself the task of delivering grand, free-floating oratories to passersby. He was scheduled to meet with the president of the United States soon.

They all used the World Trade Center as a place to sleep, panhandle, or pass the time before September 11. They all remain unaccounted for. Their friends and acquaintances fear they died when the towers fell, perhaps only a small portion of the still uncounted street people who perished that day. No one papered the city with flyers bearing their pictures. No family members came in with their toothbrushes to identify their DNA. Maybe their families didn't even know where they were. They died in the anonymous way they lived. Their memories now depend on the informal network of people who saw them every week, yet perhaps knew them only by a nickname, a first name, a familiar face.

Osbie Wiley collected cans at the twin towers for the last five years. He ran a table for the United Homeless Organization at the corner of Liberty and Church streets. When the planes hit, he ran. But he does not think everybody did.

"The public should recognize that homeless people lost their lives at the World Trade Center, too," says Wiley, 47. "I've been going down there quite a long time now, and I have a strong feeling that a lot of people did not get out. An investigation needs to take place, because those homeless people could have left behind survivors, too. A lot of people on the street still got families."

The United Homeless Organization is keeping a tally of the missing, a list that so far contains more than 50 names and whatever descriptions people could provide. They held a memorial service last month in Union Square, where they observed a moment of silence and a minister prayed for the dead.

The towers drew homeless people from across the city. They formed their own culture on the broad, bustling concourse filled with stores. They slept near the E train, in the long hallway that stretched out from the A, in the tunnels of the PATH train. They hung out on the ledge by the Chase bank ATM, in the nook next to Golden Nugget Jewelry, by the phone bank at building five, by the entrance to the 1 and 9. In the summer months, they congregated on the plaza by the fountain. In the early mornings, they crowded the sinks and washed up together in the bathrooms.

The Trade Center had energy to it. It was clean, safe, and warm in the winter. Some old-timers had been there 15 years and knew the place up and down. "They would sleep by our store," says Samuel Benejan, who managed the Ben & Jerry's by the south tower. "We had a kiosk, and it was a warm place to sleep. I'd wake them up in the morning at 5:30 and give them a cup of coffee. You'd see the same guys over and over again, not new people. The guys there knew the routine, where to stop, how long 'til the police came around. Those guys lived there. It was their home."

With all the traders and financiers charging around, some feeling generous after their business lunches, the money could be good. One fellow knew a guy who could clear $50 in a few hours. In large part, though, they came for the same reason they go to the bus terminal on 41st Street—it's patrolled by Port Authority police. Many think Port Authority cops are just plain nicer than city ones. They'd let you sleep in peace at night, and only made the rounds in the mornings, rattling their sticks between 9 and 10 a.m.

But the first plane hit at 8:48 a.m. This worries those who have not seen their friends. They cringe at the thought of them sleeping somewhere in the tunnels when the towers fell, and more than 1500 feet of the 1 and 9 tunnels caved in, and ceilings and steel tumbled to the ground, and the PATH tunnels became so severely damaged the station there won't reopen for at least two years. Sixty percent of the concourse collapsed or became unstable that day. A third of that area is covered in a solid blanket of debris.

A laconic representative for New York City Transit says no riders or workers were hurt or killed in the subway tunnels on September 11. Captain Anthony Whitaker, the Port Authority officer who led the evacuation, said through his spokesman that he is confident his team completely cleared the concourse that morning.

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