High Anxiety

Until recently, midtown office workers knew just what to do when a fire alarm sounded: Emit a peeved groan, raise an eyebrow or two, and begin shuffling diffidently toward the elevator. But when a shrill siren echoed through parts of the Empire State Building last Tuesday, no one stopped by the bathroom or bothered to look for his cigarettes.

“My knees turned to Jell-O,” recalls Eve Weiss, who works for a health-care organization on the twenty-third floor. “I just knew I had to get out.” As it happened, Weiss gave her boss notice one month ago, and is thrilled that she’ll soon be working from home. “Some of my co-workers expressed envy at my leaving.”

They’re not alone. “I just do not feel safe in that building,” says Raymond Rigoglioso, who has quit his job at a firm he’d rather not name. “There’s a difference between putting yourself at random risk and choosing to spend five days a week in a prime terrorist target. If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that if someone wants to destroy a building, they’ll do it.”

According to a spokesman for Helmsley-Spear, which owns the building, “a handful” of companies have asked to leave. And Andrew P. Brucker, an attorney in the building, sent around a letter asking that tenants withhold rent checks until security is tightened. It drew more than 60 responses.

But stepped-up security has already transformed the lobby into a kind of border crossing: X-ray machines and metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs (there was a threat the day after the attack), and twice as many guards make going to the office a stressful, sometimes hour-long ordeal. Then comes the anxiety of working at high altitudes. “We were sitting around the conference table the other day when a helicopter buzzed by,” says architect Ronnette Riley, whose office is on the eightieth floor. “We all recoiled, like What the hell was that? One of my workers has already given me advance notice that if anything else happens at all, she’s gone.”

Some, however, are keeping cool. Diamond salesman Jack Brod, 91, has been a tenant since 1931 and says he has every intention of staying put. “I had one employee making up excuses why she couldn’t come in for ten days,” says Brod, who was in the building in 1945 when it was struck by a B-25 bomber. “But I understood and told her that her job’s here when she’s ready. She’s back now and seems to be doing okay.”

High Anxiety