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Saturday, 15 September, 2001, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
New York stares terror in the face
World Trade Center ablaze
Full horror of the attack took many hours to sink in
By Stephen Evans in New York

It's a strange sensation being that close to a terrible event yet not really believing it's actually happening. I was on the ground floor of the south tower and I felt the building shake.

But it's strange that even when you see the flames and the full horror it still took me many hours to believe that what my eyes told me they'd seen had actually happened.

By the afternoon I knew it had all sunk in. Odd things started making me frightened - the sound of a bus clattering over a metal sheet in the street; the sudden sight of people looking upwards.

An aircraft - a military aircraft appeared over the Hudson River on the afternoon of the attack and that sent a frisson of fear through me.

All this of course is minor stuff. Nearly 5,000 people died or are missing in circumstances that simply defy the imagination. And in truth it did defy people's imagination.

Silence and reflection

The mood and the psychology of the city changed almost by the hour and changed in strange ways.

Firstly it has to be said that there wasn't that raw, loud anger, that mob hatred that spills out in slogans and a search for the nearest surrogate for the perpetrators.

Firefighters take a break at WTC
Firefighters searching through the rubble are the city's heroes
There was rather genuine shock, genuine stunned silence and a lot of reflection. People standing under the neon news services in Times Square, looking up with their arms around each others' shoulders, clearly thinking about the big themes like good and evil, or vengeance, or not vengeance.

All that sombreness though turned into loud celebration, barely a day later. We need heroes, one person told me.

Thousands suddenly emerged to cheer the firemen and police and truck drivers as they drove in for the nightshift, the unimaginably grim nightshift on the second night.

And this procession of rescuers drove in through one of the most exotic parts of Manhattan. It drove in through Chelsea which turned out its most flamboyant inhabitants, so there were people of every age and every hue waving the Stars and Stripes.

Two gay men jointly waving a single banner, all part of an emotional uniting of people.

A single fireman walked down the long, straight road on the banks of the Hudson, cheered by people of all ages and shapes and sizes

It could have been ugly chauvinism. In fact it was a moving demonstration of solidarity in the face of an attempt by a small number of people to bend the will of a large number through sheer terror.

Perhaps the most moving, eye-moistening moment came when a single fireman walked down the long, straight road on the banks of the Hudson, cheered by people of all ages and shapes and sizes.

He simply pulled back his shoulders, stood up very straight and marched ahead.

Manhattan empty

As the days have passed, many pictures stay in the mind - walking through the empty streets of lower Manhattan at dawn on the day after and looking down 7th Avenue.

It's long and straight and wide and grand, and normally dominated at the bottom end by the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Not any more it's not. The gap shrieks out at you, it's just not the way lower Manhattan should look.

Or walking into a bar about a mile from the World Trade Center at midnight on Wednesday. There was the barman looking every newcomer in the face as they reached the bar, shaking them all by the hand and asking them how they were.

Searching for missing relatives
Relatives refuse to give up hope in the search for loved ones
Or the strange ways of grief.

The Americans like that word "closure" - the idea that an event isn't done until some sort of formal end is put on it.

So I've met wives who I suspect knew really that their husbands were dead - they referred to them in the past tense, he used to love sport, that kind of thing.

Yet they carried pictures to distribute to strangers as though their man might have just been lost, wandering in the street, about to be found, about to be restored, just away for a few days after going to work on Tuesday.

Refusing to give in

I ask myself other small questions. One of the big chain stores asks each customer if they want to give to the American Red Cross.

I said that I didn't - it's my instinctive reaction if I feel I'm being pressurised into giving to charity. I'll decide when and what I want to give, thank you very much.

In parts of New York there's been what seems - strange to say - something like a party atmosphere

And I don't trust those mass gestures but perhaps I should have given, perhaps it's all part of a solidarity between people, that should be cherished. Because solidarity and communal spirit, whatever you want to call them, there certainly was and certainly is.

At times, as the days passed something very strange happened. In parts of New York there's been what seems - strange to say - something like a party atmosphere, certainly a party in Union Square where people gathered and actually danced on Thursday night.

Dancing with a mass grave down the road, you ask? What on earth is going on? Singing after a man has sat in the pilot seat of an aircraft full of innocent people and flown it straight into an office block equally full of innocent people.

It was, I think, an assertion of the positive when the negative seemed to have taken over. It is a people asserting goodness in the face of evil, standing up and saying you might want us down but we will stand up straight thank you very much.

It's staring terror back in the face and saying that's not the way it's going to be.

The BBC's Stephen Evans reports from New York
"I felt the building shake"
See also:

12 Sep 01 | Americas
'It doesn't seem real'
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