How New Yorkers responded to terrorist attacks

(Jeremy Dauber is a columnist for csmonitor.com, and a professor at Columbia University in New York. After ensuring his students were safe, Dauber went down to the area of Lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center was located.)

You looked for the people in gray.

They weren't actually wearing gray, but the dust and ashes from the burning buildings of lower Manhattan had turned their outfits that color. A policeman leaned heavily against a barricade hastily erected cordoning off the area around what used to be the World Trade Center. His eyes were red. Asked what it looked like downtown, he said softly, "It's like a war." A twenty-something man with a stud earring and fashionable black clothes stained gray shook his head and said, "I don't want to think about what I saw."

Walking down the Avenue of Americas, heading towards lower Manhattan, you were struck by the silence: what's normally a bustling, happy, busy area was practically deserted. The only vehicles on the streets were ambulances, fire trucks, and construction vehicles, to clear away the debris. Hundreds of policemen, many of whom are wearing surgical masks to prevent excessive smoke inhalation either on their mouths or around their necks, were stationed at street corners.

The policemen also kept away hundreds, thousands of New Yorkers, either those evacuated from the area or who those who had been driven by curiosity or other motivations to the area. A number of people walked up to the barricades and asked policemen to let them through: they wanted to see if their homes were still standing.

There were times yesterday when many New Yorkers had less information than anyone else in the country. Many in lower Manhattan were -- still are -- temporarily or permanently homeless, and thus didn't have access to radios. Rumors swirled around the city; there had been a car bomb at the State Department, a plane had crashed into the White House. And you couldn't see anything, just a wide plume of dark smoke, contrasting sharply with the deep, beautiful blue sky.

People didn't know if their colleagues and coworkers were alive, they didn't know if there would be another strike, they didn't know where they would stay last night, they didn't whether they would go to work today. It was this as much as anything else that kept the city's inhabitants unusually docile and silent.

But there was a lot unusual about the behavior of New Yorkers yesterday, at least if stereotypes and reputations are anything to go by.

Though New Yorkers are generally a hard-bitten lot, and their reputation is that they couldn't care less about one another, judging from yesterday the reputation is flat wrong. Lines of New Yorkers who waited to give blood spilled out of hospitals. Downtown, at the volunteer center, hundreds of people put their names on lists and waited hours to do something, anything at all. There are so many of them that they were almost in danger of blocking the ambulances and fire vehicles that speed down the streets.

It's said that New Yorkers never speak to one another if they can possibly help it. But in today's daze, strangers talked to one another, trying to figure out what happened, grasping at snatches of information from locals and emergency personnel. A young woman with multiple piercings huddled up against a French-speaking immigrant, trying to listen to his radio. Three young men in surgical scrubs lean against a building. Already exhausted, and they knew that they had a long night ahead of them.

But life goes on, and within blocks of the World Trade Center individuals ordered meals in restaurants and cafes. Still, there seemed to be only one topic of conversation.

As I write this, I can hear the church bells of St. John the Divine tolling for the many victims of yesterday's tragedy. New Yorkers are grieving, helping, mourning, and praying.

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