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The Circles of Loss

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Certain communities and neighborhoods were also hit harder than others. Pelham, in Westchester, lost nine people; Chappaqua, home to the Clintons, lost one. Britain lost more people than Long Island, if Tony Blair's estimates are right. Summit, the New Jersey town that's home to the former chairman of Citibank, the current head of Morgan Stanley, and one of the state's two senators, John Corzine, lost either ten or twelve people -- Walter D. Long, its mayor, still isn't sure.

"Personally, I'm still in shock," he says. "I'm down. You know, I cry a lot." Abruptly, he starts to do so. "My wife says crying's healthy. I hate to cry." And then he's spilling over. "I've never told another man I loved him in my life. But with all my friends at a wedding this weekend, you just put your arms around whomever,and you say you love them. Everybody is -- are we angry? Yes. We're angry."

Staten Island -- which perhaps has never felt so much like an island, with both the solidarity and isolation it implies -- was thunderously, disproportionately hit. One out of every five missing firefighters is from Staten Island, though the borough makes up just 6 percent of the city's population. And a lot of traders live there, because Wall Street sits just across the water.

"You could knock on every door and you'd find someone who knows someone in the Trade Center or who was on a truck," says Ron Barranco, a paramedic. "I know 30 guys, 15 from my community. We're involved with Knights of Columbus and one girl, 27, is missing. Frank Esposito did all the taping work on my house when we painted -- we'd see him at all the parades with the kids. You hear things, but one day you open the paper and your face drops: 'That was the Frank Esposito that died?' "

He's sitting on the backporch of a fellow paramedic for the Fire Department, whose family has recently been hosting frequent barbecues in their Westerly home. "I did two wakes and a Mass yesterday,"he continues. "I've got another wake tomorrow. If you can't associate a face with a name, you still go."

The whole island feels the strain. "My wife, she's home-bound," says Guy Molinari, the borough president. "She reached the point last week where she couldn't watch the news, so I went to Blockbuster's. The place was mobbed. I looked around, and everybody was sobbing. They all wanted to get away from it. It was mental overload."

"Everywhere they turn, they see another family who's lost someone. It's very oppressive."

Molinari attended seven wakes in three days last week. He has two women in his office who do nothing but coordinate his attendance. "For some people," he continues, "it's slightly easier knowing the burden has impacted the entire community, and that their loss is not an individual loss -- there are so many people giving support. But the downside is, every place they turn, they see another family who's lost someone. It becomes very oppressive."

Strange: Relative to it size, Manhattan feels like it had the fewest casualties of all.

Americans have no frame of reference for coping with mass, sudden deaths, at least not in recent history. In 1918, the flu epidemic killed thousands, and before that, so did all manner of infectious diseases. But today, mass deaths seem to happen elsewhere -- from war or natural disasters, like earthquakes and mud slides and typhoons.

Kirk Humphreys, the mayor of Oklahoma City, may be one of the few politicians who can speak to this issue. His words are both encouraging and chilling. On the one hand, he says, Oklahoma City developed a much crisper, more powerful sense of itself after the bombing. "We feel a lot better today about ourselves as a city than we did before," he says. "I think we found our character, our optimism, our caring. That hardship brought that out."

But he also warns of the enormous psychic toll the attack will have on New York's public officials. In fact, Humphreys ventures that one of the reasons he's in office is because of Timothy McVeigh. "Our mayor didn't want to run again," he says. "He might not have wanted to anyway. But I think . . ." he drifts off, hesitating, realizing that now is not the time to depress New York morale. "I think it took something out of him."

He hesitates again, struggling to find the right balance between realism and encouragement. "You're going to see some burnout," he finally says. "Mayor Giuliani, everyone's admiring him at this time. But he's reaching down into some reservoirs he's spent a lifetime building. It'll take a long time to replenish that."

As citizens, he says, we should also brace ourselves. "This is bad to say," he adds. "But I think you're going to see more divorce, more attempted suicides, more substance abuse. You're going to see people really, really, really struggling with what they're seeing."

Joanne Lynn is a hospice and long-term-care physician who's also head of Americans for Better Care of the Dying, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. She has spent her whole life thinking about death and loss. "One of the tasks one has to face, when bereaved, is to construct a lifeworth living," she says. "And it seems the culture has to do that now, too. Not just the individuals who lost people in the World Trade Center. I'm talking about as aculture, we have to decide what our understanding is of very fundamental questions. Working with bereaved people has taught me that we have more options than we think. The kinds of choices we make are very important. What we decide to do now, while things are unsettled, will chart the course for some time to come."

Additional reporting by Emily Gitter, Abby Tegnelia, and Jada Yuan.


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