It's business far from usual as companies join the mass exodus

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The Independent US

The equity trading floor at Lehman Brothers was buzzing yesterday afternoon. Amid raucous shouts, traders in shirtsleeves were slapping each other on the back about the $2bn transaction by the investment bank GE Capital.

A familiar enough scene in Wall Street. But this was not Wall Street, it was not New York. The view from the 34th floor windows was across the Hudson river to the empty space with wafts of smoke still bellowing where the bank once had its offices in the twin towers.

Lehman is just one of the firms that have relocated to New Jersey after last Tuesday's disaster. The new headquarters are in a block attached to a shopping mall on Hudson Street in Jersey City.

The bank already owns floors in the building to accommodate some of its branches. But the hundreds who turned up for work yesterday had never been there before this week. Now they face a prolonged and indefinite stay.

With some of its prime business real estate destroyed in the terrorist attack, New York is now facing an exodus of big business. Some of the biggest names of Wall Street are on the move. Lehman Brothers is sharing its Jersey City building with Merrill Lynch, which has set up in the past week.

Behind the facade of normality, the scars of what happened are apparent. Employees coming into the makeshift lobby of grey stone are given forms on coping with trauma, information on whereabouts of colleagues and details of company buses running to New York.

Upstairs, among the packing cases being hastily torn open to unload computers, counsellors move from department to department to hold group and individual sessions with workers. Amid the bustle, there are men and women who stand staring out of the windows in silence.

Amazingly, only one person out of the bank's workforce of more than 6,000 in the World Trade Centre, and World Financial Centre next door, is still unaccounted for. Many others, however, received injuries of a lesser and greater degree. Jason Farrago, a corporate officer, said: "We know that even those who are physically OK may be suffering mentally.

"We are doing all we can to make sure they get all the support they need. Because of contingency plans the disruption to business was not as bad as it could have been. But we must remember the human aspect.''

Thanks to that contingency plan, set up after the 1993 bombing of the twin towers, a team had travelled from the smouldering wreckage of the Manhattan office and arrived in Jersey City in 22 minutes. The next hours were spent frantically contacting and reassuring clients across the world.

"The scene now is not much different from equity floor in New York,'' Mr Farrago said, waving his arm across the long, low-ceilinged room. "We started trading on Monday. But we were ready to go last week had the markets permitted that. We used back-up systems in Asia and Europe to keep damage to a minimum.''

Mr Farrago, 27, was born in the Bronx, went to university in New York and now lives in Hoboken. "I was in the World Financial Centre, on the 10th floor, when the first plane hit,'' he said.

"There was debris and people trying to get out. My main task after that was to try and find out what had happened to our employees. It was pretty exhausting, but then everyone was working every hard.

"Our workforce were actually quite keen to be back at work. They felt it was good to be back with their colleagues, talk to each other. I certainly felt that I needed to be with other people here.

"There is now a tremendous sense of solidarity. People go out of their way to help each other out. No one has complained about having to move here.''

Neighbourhood cafés, used to getting their custom from local shops and small businesses, have now had an influx of high-earning financial workers. At the Au Bon Pain, a sandwich parlour at 101 Hudson Street, Conrad Smith from Merrill Lynch was having a business lunch with a French client. The silver service of the Manhattan restaurants has been replaced by a Formica table, and fine cuisine with two rolls and coffee.

Brushing away crumbs from his jacket, Mr Smith said: "At least this will be good for my diet. There were some initial teething difficulties at the office but we are getting over it ... I am driving in now and there is somewhere to park. Of course, I could not do that in Manhattan. I still think a lot about what happened, and all the people who lost their lives, but life and business must go on. Our clients have been very supportive.''

His companion, Henri Lascalles, who works for investment analysts in Paris, said: "It is a tragedy, but the American firms have been very quick to get going again. I do not mind coming to Jersey City. I was in New York when the attack took place and I felt a strong bond with the American people. The main problem I face now is how to get back to Paris with the flights as they are.''