Going home is part of the healing process - but many cannot face it

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From his dusty, filth-strewn roof garden on the 13th floor of a swanky apartment block, George Hyatt admits he cannot name the buildings opposite. The reason isn't ignorance or stupidity; it's just that the last time Mr Hyatt was home, he couldn't see them.

Yesterday, with a trickle of others, Mr Hyatt was allowed to return to Battery Park City, a planning utopia between the Hudson river and New York's financial centre, a place where residents used to feel lucky, but where Red Cross counsellors now walk the streets offering food, shelter, even money to those who need it.

"All I could see from here was the twin towers," said Mr Hyatt, stepping over plaster and through crunching masonry dust. "I've never seen those buildings from this angle. They seem new to me. The whole view seems new." There is nothing new about the view below. Depending on your sense of the macabre, it is the best or worst in Manhattan. What seems to be 200 yards away is the heap that was once the World Trade Centre, after two weeks looking a little tidier but no less grim. It still gives off smoke, in spite of advice from forest rangers on how to douse stubborn fires.

Battery Park City was the dream of planners in the Sixties who wanted to regenerate the Hudson river shipping terminals. Designed by Wallace K Harrison, it was intended to introduce community into the city and features 30 acres of parks and gardens, its own high school (which remains closed), shops, offices and individually designed apartment blocks on broad, clean streets.

When the twin towers collapsed, people here had to run for their lives. As dust rendered the sky black, residents were evacuated across the Hudson to wonder whether their homes would ever be the same again. For two weeks most people have been living with friends or relatives, without knowing the state of their buildings, but now they're coming back. For most, there is a sense of relief; others, however, are already planning to leave.

"I feel lucky. It could have been a lot worse," said Mr Hyatt, 57, a real estate businessman. "There's dust everywhere – indoors and outside – but nothing is broken. The dust is only inside because I was on the roof and saw both towers collapse. When the second one went, I thought it was coming down on me so I ran inside away from the cloud, and I didn't stop to close the door.

"There is a lot of cleaning up to do, but coming home feels good. It's part of the healing process and it shows that life must go on. It's a strange thing to come home to a new view, but we must carry on."

Most people in Battery Park are fairly well off; a one-bed apartment will cost about $300,000 (£205,000) or more. Mr Hyatt's, with a roof terrace in the Hudson View East building, is worth about $700,000. To rent will cost a minimum of $2,400 a month but, for the professionals who live here, the financial centre of Manhattan was only a five-minute walk away.

The other building opened by the city authorities yesterday was The Soundings, a short distance away in Rector Place. Larry and Nicole Seymour had just arrived, not to move in but to collect some clothes to take away. "I used to work at 1 Liberty Plaza, at a law firm, but that was badly damaged and it won't be up and running again for at least six weeks," Mr Seymour said. "The subways still aren't working properly and the shops are all closed here, so it still isn't a great place to live. Our apartment is fine because we closed the windows before we were evacuated but we're going to stay with my in-laws in Brooklyn for a little while longer.

"We'd only just moved in and got our apartment just the way we wanted it two days before this happened. But we are coming back and we do still want to live in this area."

Not everyone feels that way. Paul Ranum, a volunteer Red Cross stress counsellor with experience of 15 disasters, is walking the streets, stopping residents to find out whether they need any help from a Red Cross centre set up in the area four days ago.

"We offer counselling, food, shelter, even money if they need it," he said yesterday. "People who used to live here considered themselves the luckiest in New York. They were next to the river, the financial centre, the shops and restaurants. But now a lot of them can't face coming back.

"I've counselled about 100 people so far and 20 per cent of them say they aren't returning permanently. Many people here actually saw the planes hit, then they saw the buildings collapse and had to run for their lives. Now they see the remains of the towers and it's a horrible reminder for them. Even when it's gone, there will be years of building and that, too, will be a reminder.

"It's a measure of the disaster for some that they may never get over it. Look at where we are – you have the Red Cross offering food and help not in the Third World, but right next to the richest financial centre in the world, on the very spot where people live who once thought of themselves as the luckiest in the world. Hard to get your head round that, isn't it?"