9/11/01: A city in shock tries to accept
The hastily assembled command centers at the city's hospitals signaled yesterday afternoon that the worst was yet to come.
"We're looking for a place to put the bodies," said Pete Velez, administrator at the Elmhurst Hospital Center.
Velez is as cool as they come but even he seemed to be breathing hard as the enormity of yesterday's explosions at the World Trade Center sank in.
But he also wanted to show Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, a nurse before she went into politics, how New Yorkers were responding to an attack that leveled the Twin Towers, turning them into smoldering stumps.
Velez led Shulman into a crowded auditorium where volunteers, many of them still learning their new second language, had come to offer their help.
"We've had over 900 people come here to give blood," said Velez, who cleared as many beds as he could to accommodate those injured in the explosion.
Velez said by evening yesterday he expected many of the victims to arrive at his hospital's doors.
No one knows just how many Americans were killed in separate attacks in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., yesterday. But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's chilling words, "More than we can bear," and a Virginia congressman's estimate of 10,000 deaths chilled listeners.
Later, Shulman was ushered into the command centers at New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens in Flushing and Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica, where a police officer told her plans were being made for helicopters carrying victims to land in a nearby field.
Earlier, my mouth tasting like dry cotton due to anxiety, I walked along Queens Boulevard in Kew Gardens near the borough's seat of government. I found people struggling to try to make sense of the first air strike against this country's mainland since its founding.
Some of them had already gotten past shock and were angry, ready for revenge. Some prayed openly, some cried, some stood in lines waiting for a bus to take them home.
Barry Grodenchik, who works for Shulman and is running for her job, read from a book of Psalms, his voice choked with emotion.
"From the straits I did call upon God ... God is with me. How can men affect me?"
Asif Khan, 17, said that "maybe America deserves this. I am a Muslim and the Russians are killing Muslim babies and the Americans do nothing to help us."
"I feel like I am in a movie," said another youngster for whom Pearl Harbor is just a film. "This can't be real."
Some I talked to were frustrated.
"We know it's a terrorist attack but we can't point to a specific country and say, 'Let's bomb it,'" said Larry Love, 34, a lawyer.
"I am in shock and nauseous," Marguerite Martina told me. She is a juror in a criminal case and sat on a bench outside Borough Hall trying to figure out how she would get to her home in Astoria since the subways had been closed.
In the morning, State Supreme Court Judge Abe Gerges in Brooklyn, returned my phone call.
"Remember when you told me years ago that the oceans wouldn't protect us any longer, and that a terrorist attack would come because New York is just a plane ride away from anywhere?" I asked him.
"I remember," said Gerges, who was then a city councilman. "I just wish this day had never happened."
But it did and now we are left to think about the days to come. We will have those smoldering stumps in downtown Manhattan to remind us that the place we call the most powerful nation on Earth is just another fat target to people who hate us.