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"New Yorkers unite as their world crumbles", The Reflector

Published on September 13, 2001

By Trevor Prosser

"All we've heard all day is sirens."

Steph Rea is an alumnus of Mount Royal College, a former editor of the Reflector, and a former Students' Association executive. She's in New York right now, working for the United Nations. She recalls the day when "a whole city was struck dumb," Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's brutal. It's absolutely brutal. You should see the sky here... they've actually cleared it out, it's more clear now because they're fighting the fire (in the World Trade Center). It was drifting away from where I was, it was over Brooklyn, so as I got closer to home it got darker.

"It was just nuts, this city. It's the first time I've looked out and there's nobody on the streets. There's people, but no cars and just people, not talking... It's crazy. If you want to put the human touch on it, people are gathered around media sources, and there is none of the normal pushing, like there's 20 people standing around a van that's playing the news and they're all just looking there and nobody's rushing, and it's not New York. To immobilize the city, nobody knew what to do... they shut down the NY Stock Exchange. That doesn't happen... It's just insane.

"They hit a big city, and they hit it in a way that never ever could have been anticipated. Two commercial airlines? The city's trying to understand."

Rea was in the UN building when the first plane hit, and describes the sequence of events around her.

"We didn't see much. The way we heard about it, we'd just gotten into the office, nine o'clock. We're in the middle of a conference, and everybody's running around, and one of my colleagues, her husband called and said 'oh my god, the World Trade Center just blew up.'

"You know that on a given day, there's 50,000 people plus tourists in this area. I mean, the buildings alone... and I was up there on Tuesday. I was there a week ago.

"He was on the phone with her when the second plane crashed into the building and he was like 'oh my god, oh my god, you gotta clear out right now." He works at a tall building, we work at a short building, so he knows what was going on. So my co-worker comes out and she's like, something's wrong, the World Trade Center... planes have hit it, and we don't know if it's an accident. You don't know anything. So I'm on the Internet, trying to get CNN and BBC, CBC... I'm logging into everything, just trying. You can't get through on the Internet because everybody's on the Internet, and finally we get through to the Globe and Mail Web site, and it's a terrorist attack. And all hell broke loose.

"We had people calling from around the world. Our headquarters are in Germany, and Germany's calling us, saying 'oh my god, what happened,' and Elsie (Kipp, former Reflector editor) called me from Vancouver within the first five minutes, and said 'what's happening,' and said, turn on the TV. I don't have a TV, so I'm getting news from Canada, because we have nothing. And that's when the building manager came up, and said 'we're clearing you out' and the UN closed down."

Rea says that although the UN building wasn't all that close to the WTC, there were other good reasons to evacuate.

"Actually, the UN sits on First Avenue, but we're right beside the US Embassy, so they evacuated us pretty quick. The cops are just marshalling everybody off of First Avenue, and they're saying 'go home, get away.'

"When it happened, nobody knew what it was, and so of course the rumour around the UN is this whole racism conference, and the backlash from the Palestinians in the racism conference, so they cleared us out right away.

"There's a lot of cops around there on a day-to-day basis, but there were cops everywhere, and they're telling you 'don't wear your passes,' and 'get away, get away'... I'm walking around, and I'm like 'I'm just this girl from Canada...'"

Rea seemed to think that the WTC should have been safe from attack.

"The WTC security is fucking good. When we were up there last week, you could not go anywhere other than the lobby with a bag. You can't. You have to have a swipe card to get in and out of the garage, so they know exactly who's in there."

On her way home, Rea saw the results of the crashes.

"As we were walking up, we saw a couple of guys who had apparently been down at the WTC. They had their handkerchiefs (on their faces) for smoke inhalation and their suits are all dusty... the dust is incredible.

"The overwhelming sense of helplessness... and the huge thing right now is blood. They're asking everybody for blood, it's been announced hundreds and hundreds of times, just to go give blood because we were in a blood crisis before, and so I'm going to go give blood tomorrow. You know you gotta do your part, right?

"All we've heard all day is sirens. They're coming in from Jersey, they're coming in from Connecticut, and now people are rallying together, and I think that's part of what is so scary, that a city of 12 million people pulls together like that."

Rea headed to her home in Brooklyn. "Today it took me two-and- a-half-hours, and during rush hour it usually takes me like an hour, an hour and fifteen...

"If you're in Manhattan, you can drive. There is just too much chaos. At this point there are only two bridges from the boroughs into Manhattan, and then of course it's gridlock.

"We just chilled out at home and watched the news, and you're getting conflicting reports. At one point, we'd heard that Capitol Hill had been bombed, or there had been an explosion, which of course was incorrect, it was just evacuated. And we found out about the Pentagon getting hit... so we watched the news all afternoon, and everybody's calling everybody, trying to get through on the phone lines."

Rea watched replays of the buildings falling on television. "Watching it implode, I didn't think a building that big could go down like that. Seconds, it was literally seconds. By the time it was all over, we still had no idea. We were still evacuating the building, and that's pretty scary in itself, being evacuated. The only thing I've been evacuated from was the fake bomb scare at Mount Royal. It doesn't count. This isn't fair."

While this hit close to home for Rea, it was even closer for others she knew.

"I've got a friend who works down by the WTC, at the World Financial Center, which is right across the street. I spent all day trying to get a hold of him, but with things down you can't... finally got a hold of him, and he watched... he was standing out front when the second plane crashed into the building, like just when the second impact started the reaction of the first one going down, so he just left. They just ran from where they were. It wasn't safe to be inside, with the debris, and he said that he was just running though smoke and just holding onto the person in front of him, trying to make sense of it.

"And we heard a call from one lady who worked in the WTC... she saw people jumping out of buildings-out of 110 story buildings-praying that you hit the water and not the cement. Regardless, the fall's gonna kill you."

Rea said that there was nothing else in New York that day. "That's all you talk about, and people are so helpful. New Yorkers are on average, quite helpful, but just so much more now. People are more willing to say 'sit down,' or 'I know where you're going if you're lost.' It's just so bizarre that in a city of 12 million people, everybody knows what's going on and everybody has the same feelings. It's not 'way to go terrorists' or 'I don't care, it doesn't affect me.' It's like, 'oh my god.'

"It's not even that the city's in a panic. I mean, I don't even think the city's panicking yet, because I don't get that feeling... it's just shock. I talked to my mom, she's out by Seattle, and there's panic there. You know, like the Space Needle's been shut down.

"You think it's a joke or something. You think that they're wrong. They're the most powerful country, or known to be the most powerful country in the world. And we're stuck on this island. I cannot get off this island. I can't go home if I wanted to. If they declared a state of emergency, I have every right to leave, being a Canadian citizen, and I can't get out of here.

"I have honestly never been scared like that before. It's a war city, it was a war city down there and it's like I've never experienced that before in my life, and I wasn't even that close to it... so, it was just, oh, brutal, brutal, brutal."

There were side effects to the crashes that most hadn't expected.

"There was actually a food rush. I don't know statistics on it. I mean we went to the grocery store to get food for lunch, and toilet paper and water, gone. You couldn't buy a jug of water.

"They're anticipating weeks to clean up, to months, and you know, they've barely started rescue operations... really not rescue, but the cleanup, of looking for survivors."

For the survivors, and the rest of New York, what comes next is unknown.

"We don't know about work yet. There's big questions now. UNICEF is having a huge conference on welfare of children, but 80 world leaders are supposed to be there, and I would put money on no, it's not gonna happen.

"But life carries on in little ways. Go walk past a park, and children are playing."