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Monday, 17 September, 2001, 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK
No ordinary commute
Commuters on the Staten Island ferry
Altered vista: Commuters on the Staten Island ferry
Ryan Dilley

In the narrow streets of New York's financial district, workers pick their way back to the office for the first time since Tuesday's attacks. For many, it will be the most difficult working day of their careers.

With one hand they hold up their photo IDs to the NYPD officers manning the cordon around downtown New York, in the other they carry coffee mugs for the first skinny latte of the working day.

Workers in the financial district head to work
Grim-faced workers brave the streets
In a business suit paired with training shoes, Judith Maranos begins to cross the street, stepping over the thick grey dust which has been swept into the gutter, towards her office eight short blocks from "ground zero"

"We should have left it longer. I think we're being forced to go back too soon. I don't want to go, but if I don't they won't pay me," she says.

The stream of office workers heading south splits to let through a line of exhausted firefighters retreating from the rubble. A city bus turns the corner. On board there are no commuters, only the latest shift of rescue workers donning their bright red vests.

Police tape in a bin
Discarded police tape lies crumpled in a bin
With every block the smoke and dust from the still smouldering WTC grows thicker, whipped in by the shifting breeze.

Molly Hall works just three streets away from the fires. "I'm a little nervous - the unsteady buildings, the smoke. But they have assured us we're safe."

Office worker with mask
Taking no chances
However, with telephone lines still down in many buildings, Ms Hall admits her presence in the office is more of a symbolic gesture than a real attempt to get back to work.

Handwritten signs from the rescue effort remain taped to walls and telephone booths, offering directions to triage centres, police command posts and rest areas.

A man slowly gets into his car, its bodywork turned ash grey. A barkeeper cleaning his shop front helpfully turns his hosepipe on the driver's windscreen.

Crumbled remains

The office workers turn into the street running parallel with the disaster site. The acrid smell of electrical fires that hung over the city last week has abated. In its place is something akin to a bonfire.

Guarding what remains
The National Guard bars entry to "ground zero"
"They're going to start up baseball soon," Wall Street worker Francisco Leon tells his colleague.

He glances left up a cross street. Not more than a few hundred feet away, a two-storey finger of steel points up from where the 110-floor World Trade Center used to be. "That's the first time I've seen it," he says at last.

Other workers throw nervous glances in the same direction. A woman bites her lips and breaks into a trot that takes her back behind the cover of a building.

Makeshift masks

Those who have brought cotton face masks and respirators constantly adjust them. Those without cover their mouths with handkerchiefs, tissues or their sleeves.

Man covering his face with a flag
Dust still hangs heavy in the air
The fumes catch in the throat of the police officer telling the crowd to prepare their photo IDs for another round of checks. He lowers his loudhailer to cough.

In the slow-moving queue at the final cordon yards before the New York Stock Exchange, a young man masks his nose and mouth with a stars and stripes flag. "Get that American flag off your face, you ham!" shouts a large man baring down on the crowd.

As the minutes tick by to 9am, those waiting at the police barriers begin to glance around more nervously.

I've got four stitches up here and another three here

Bill Belmont
Many darting eyes settle on Bill Belmont. In two patches, his thick dark hair has been shaved. Beneath fresh dressings are the injuries he sustained when the towers collapsed six days ago.

"I've got four stitches up here and another three here," he says, motioning to his bandaged left hand. His eyes are red-rimmed. "I want to get back to work," he says. His shoulders sag as film crews and sound recordists push towards him.

No ID, no entry

Unlike many of those shuffling towards the Stock Exchange, Gerald Gould is immaculately turned out in a suit and shined brogues. Under his arm this 40-year veteran of the financial district carries a folded Wall Street Journal.

Heading for NYSE
Workers head back to the reopened Stock Exchange
Despite looking every inch the corporate ideal, Mr Gould is turned back by a masked officer for having forgotten his ID card. He begins to walk back to the nearest subway station, its stairway lit by one of the many humming generators which fill the streets.

Above stand Wall Street's mighty skyscrapers, once a symbol of this city's confidence, but now seemingly so fragile.

Dust and debris stick to windows and masonry as far up as the eye can see. As the smoke clouds briefly break, a glimpse of bright blue sky appears.

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