America's own refugees: people who can't go home

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The Independent US

More than a week after terrorists flew two commercial airliners into the twin towers in New York and sent them crashing to the ground, thousands of residents of the city remain homeless, forced either to camp with relatives and friends or take advantage of emergency shelters set up by the American Red Cross.

Officials estimate that about 25,000 people remain displaced by the tragedy, almost half of them from Battery Park City, a planned development of mostly modern apartment blocks built on landfill on the edge of the Hudson river just west of where the twin towers stood.

Queues have been forming outside the disaster area every day as New York's unlikely refugees plead with the authorities for permission to return home. Some are being allowed into the area with one suitcase and one helper just to gather up necessary belongings, especially prescription medicines, spectacles and clothes. Usually they are allowed to stay in their apartments for 10 minutes only.

Not everyone has been even that lucky. Bill Lowndes tried three times to reach his home, a loft apartment in a converted brick factory building on Duane Street, just three blocks from the destroyed World Trade Centre, the first time at about midnight on the day of the attacks. Every time the police have sent him away. He has been told that the foundation is cracked and the building is unsafe to enter.

Sitting yesterday on the steps of the Irving Washington High School, close to Union Square, where one of the shelters has been set up, Mr Lowndes, 33, was resigned to never living in the building again. He isn't even trying to visit it any more. "I have pretty much given up at this point," he admitted. He has just found a one-bedroom rental in Brooklyn that he can afford and plans to take it.

Also at the shelter is 24-year-old Mark Zweifoer, who had been living with a friend in a modern apartment on Chamber Street. They have been told that it is safe to go back but they are hardly anxious to. There is no electricity or phone lines in the building. The smell of burning is still strong and the noise from the rescue effort reverberates 24 hours a day. "The place is completely deserted, so what would be the point?" asked Mr Zweifoer, struggling to wake up mid-morning after finally catching some sleep in one of the army-style camp beds that are placed in rows on the floor of the school's gymnasium. The past few nights have been noisy, because of about 40 very restless pensioners whose retirement home was damaged. Many of them are mighty snorers.

The longer the refugees are kept away, the worse the conditions will seem when they finally return. Those who have briefly been able to visit the residential buildings have reported finding them filled with ash and reaking of rotting food. Fridges, they say, are already filling with maggots.

For many the agony was made worse by fears for pets that were left in the buildings when the evacuations were ordered. Elliot Edelstein, from Battery Park City, went for days before hearing news that his doorman had got into his apartment and rescued his terrier, called Fremont.

"To go into my apartment and go through my window and get my dog out, it's phenomenal," he said with deep gratitude. He was less pleased to hear that, because he had left a window open last Tuesday morning, his home was buried under a deep blanket of ash and debris.

Mr Lowndes, who works for a computer networking company, believes he knows about 20 people who died when the twin towers came down. He quickly decided that he would not fancy living in the area again, even if his building were declared safe again.

"To me the neighbourhood has been tainted. I just don't think I would feel comfortable living there again," he said. Still, Mr Lowndes considers himself lucky. He has two dogs, but he was away visiting his mother when the planes hit and he and the pets were out of the building. He would like to get in the place, if only to retrieve his lap-top computer, but nothing else is vital. In the meantime, with an insurance cheque coming to him shortly, he has been enjoying having the excuse to splurge in Gap for new clothes.