Sitting in a rocking chair in the family's homey, loftlike living room, Harper, who looks exhausted, says she was walking her daughters, Eliza, 11, and Sophia, 8, to P.S. 234 that morning and had reached Chambers Street when "we heard a loud, clattering sound and felt a shadow of the jet and looked up and saw the plane hit. Eliza said, 'Oh, my God, it looks just like a movie.' " Sandra ran home with her daughters to their second-floor apartment. The family doesn't have a TV, and when neighbors invited her to the roof to see what was going on, she and the children went upstairs -- just in time to see the second plane crash into Tower Two. "It exploded and the heat hit us in the face. My little one began flipping out, she was really scared, she thought we were going to die."
The family was able to return to its apartment, but Sandra could not bear to live so near the smoking wreckage. She decamped with the children to the safety and clean air of a rented country house in Garrison, enrolling them in the local school; the trio returned to lower Manhattan to rejoin her husband in mid-November. "I missed my friends," says Eliza, the oldest daughter. "I had to tell my story twice a day there."
Sophia has been seeing a therapist since the fall and is doing infinitely better, but this dreamy girl who wants to be a writer still seems fragile. "Can I ask you, where were you on September 11?" she inquires. When I tell her that I was at home and my husband was at the airport, she visibly panics, saying, "He could have been on that plane!" But he wasn't, I reply; he's fine.
"Let me tell you about some other terrorist things," she confides. "The Grand Union burned down in Garrison, and my friend's mother died of cancer." I ask how her life has changed since September 11. "Everyone's acting different," she says. "Kids at school go home crying. I used to be friendly with everyone in my class. Now I'm not. What's different? Everything."
At Central Synagogue in midtown, attendance has jumped from 350 to 600 people on Friday nights. "I'm not hearing a lot of people wrestle with 'Why did God do this?' " says Rabbi Peter Rubinstein. "Instead they're asking, 'How do I find a spiritual center or connection with God that will help me in this time of loss?' "
In the synagogue's bereavement group for parents who have lost a child, many longtime attendees are in worse emotional shape since the terrorist attacks. "The event re-created for them that sense of mindless, out-of-control loss," he says. As for the rest of the congregation, he says, many people seem depressed, and they muse aloud about changing their day-to-day lives. "I'm seeing people rethinking their careers."
At the Unitarian Church of All Souls, the Reverend Forrest Church says his counseling load has doubled as people pour out their confusion and describe exacerbated tensions in their marriages or jobs. "This has provoked a real crisis for people," he says. Five hundred fifty people attend regular Sunday services now, up 120 since September. "Some people are seizing the opportunity to turn things around, to go into marriage counseling or stop drinking. Whatever problems existed before, I'm much more aware of them now."
Not all the stories he hears are sad ones. He refers me to one of his parishioners, Anne Bradley, a 47-year-old business consultant, who has found a new sense of purpose by becoming a charitable volunteer. "I was a typical New Yorker, highly driven to do better and move up the corporate ladder," says Bradley, a single Upper East Sider who has an enviable six-figure salary. After September 11, her priorities changed. "I wasn't motivated anymore," she says. "Work didn't excite me as it used to. I wasn't interested in putting in the hours."
Bradley quit her job in January, arranging a three-day-a-week position with a previous employer to keep enough income coming in to pay her mortgage. Now she works two days a week as a volunteer with two charities, Lighthouse International, an agency for the blind, and Heart & Soul, which helps the underprivileged and homeless. "I absolutely love it," she says. "Some of my friends think I'm crazy, they just don't get it, and others are jealous: 'Why didn't I think of that?' "
After September 11, the entire city stopped for a moment to ask: What am I doing with my life? And should I keep doing it here? While Bradley vowed to stay in town, others feel their emotional ties to New York have been so permanently frayed that moving on means moving out.
After 28 years as an announcer for the classical-music station WQXR, June LeBell has taken early retirement and is moving to Sarasota, Florida. "I feel wonderful about going," she says. "I've always been good at getting the best out of the worst." LeBell, 57, had been fantasizing about starting a new life, but her feelings crystallized in those numb September days after she fled her Battery Park City apartment just after the towers fell, carrying only her toy poodle, Lili. "I went back to work, and I lasted for a week. I couldn't stand it. I kept bursting into tears. Anytime I heard a garbage truck hit a grate, I'd freak out. I'd get so tense my gums would hurt. I know it'll never happen here again. But I don't feel safe."
It may take a long time for many New Yorkers to feel completely safe again. But Manhattan, both magic and tragic, leaves a lasting mark on those who leave to try life in other Zip Codes. Murro Van Meter, a 25-year-old Wesleyan grad who moved here in 1999 and became a stockbroker at a small Times Square firm, was already feeling disenchanted with the city and his not-so-brilliant career by the end of last summer. "The nasdaq was dumping, I was paid 100 percent on commission, and you can't sell in a bear market," says Van Meter. He married his high-school sweetheart, Sophia Fox, a photo researcher, on September 16, and upon returning from their honeymoon, the newlyweds chose to bail out of sad city life and head for Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Van Meter coached high-school basketball this winter and is now trying to make a living as a woodworker, while Sophia is an office manager at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. "It's nice here, but it's boring as hell," Van Meter says. "We've been back to New York eight times already."