Peter Pringle's America: Just one more exercise in urban survival

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The Independent Online
THE DELIVERY boy in his baseball hat had a package to take to the World Trade Centre, but the policemen stopped him. 'You can't go in there,' said the cop, explaining that there been an gigantic explosion. 'But I got to get in. I got a package to deliver,' said the boy.

The foundations of the world's second tallest building, where 50,000 people work on 110 floors, had been rocked by a bomb and set on fire. Smoke was billowing upwards, engulfing the offices; helicopters were picking people off the roof. Police, firemen and ambulances and flashing lights were everywhere, yet there was little sign of panic. New Yorkers were upset that they couldn't get on with their business.

One day later, with seven dead, more than 1,000 suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation and endless repeats of the previous day's events running on television, the reality of the blast finally hit home. Perhaps international terrorism really had arrived in America, and even if it had not, might not other bombers be tempted to try again? There are plenty of seductive targets in Manhattan.

The governor of the state of New York, Mario Cuomo, rallied the 'safest and greatest city and state and nation in the world to return as quickly as possible to normalcy'. Normalcy, did he say? There is nothing normal about New York, not even if the word denotes no more than a world in which delivery boys and other upstanding citizens can go about their daily business in safety and urban serenity. 'Is anyone safe in this city?' asked the Daily News columnist Mike McAlary. 'More precisely, is there nothing we are safe from in this city? When and where exactly was it that New Yorkers felt safe anyhow?'

Before 1920, perhaps, when a bomb left on a one-horse wagon in front of the J P Morgan Building on Wall Street killed 30 people and injured 300? That blast was attributed variously to anarchists or communists or Italian terrorists, but no one ever found them. It is now official that there was a bomb in the basement of the World Trade Centre, but the identity of the bomber is a mystery, too, so far.

There were no warning calls before the bomb went off - the only sure way for a terrorist group to claim responsibility. There were 40 calls after the event, some claiming to be groups from the Balkans, Serbs or Croats, but none that the police feel confident represents anything more sinister than a deranged person with a grudge against society or a fighter for a particular cause who had heard the news and wanted cheap credit for the blast.

It is hard to think of a group of citizens anywhere that is better equipped to cope with the idea that a deranged person did try and blow up the biggest building in a town of 800 skyscrapers. Americans are used to their own kind turning against the society and its makers: walking into offices and shooting the boss, or filling medicines with poison to get back at the drug company.

Every day in New York is an exercise in survival. People go about their business with a singular sense of purpose, trying to avoid being mugged, run over, pestered by tramps, or accosted by unfortunate citizens who have become crazy from drink or drugs or their own private demons. Life for 'normal' New Yorkers is a constant effort to insulate themselves from these brutal assaults, and a determination not to be bothered by the notion that the place where they live is permanently on the brink of man-made disasters. Until last Friday they had rarely considered the one tragedy that could affect so many in such a short space of time: that the immensely tall buildings where they work might fall down, or burn up, because of a bomb.

They had seen and forgotten the Towering Inferno, the 1970s film of a skyscraper ablaze, but the terrifying frames returned this weekend as part of the city's shattered psyche. 'I'll never go back into that building,' said Denise Bosco, who was on the 82nd floor when the bomb went off. The building shook and the lights flickered and she thought, 'Is it my time? Is this the way?'

Citizens of Manhattan are now seeking comfort in the soothing words of George Tamaro, who in 1967 oversaw the construction of the outer wall of the World Trade Centre foundations that support 1,250,000 tons of concrete and steel. 'They are robust buildings, structurally,' he reassured an anxious public. An ordinary car bomb could not knock the building down, said an officer from the Army Corps of Engineers that built many of America's dams and bridges. It would take a couple of well- placed boxcars of dynamite to do serious damage, the officer estimated.

Wary of what they are already calling a 'copy-cat bomb', workers this morning will be packing into skyscraper elevators that whisk them hundreds of feet up into the air to their offices, exhorted by more fine words from Governor Cuomo. After the bomb blast he recalled his first boxing match. 'it's kind of scary the first time you get hit, your lights go out, you develop a sense of mortality . . . so, OK - bang - we've been hit. Just watch now as New York gets back up.'