Reporters Notebook: To New York and Back

Stan Gibson shares the experience of his first post-Sept. 11 flight from Boston's Logan Airport to New York and his day at Ground Zero.

Reporters must travel. To report for eWEEK on recovery efforts stemming from the World Trade Center disaster, this week I made my second trip from Boston to New York since Sept. 11, but my maiden air voyage since the attacks.

The Boston Logan Airport experience is decidedly different from what it was before Sept. 11. The hulking Terminal B parking garage is vacant, something I had never seen before. State police are ubiquitous. New FAA signs banning curbside parking are everywhere.

Inside Terminal A there is a long line leading to the Delta Shuttle X-ray machines and metal detectors. Its slow going because the attendants are checking IDs against tickets. And you cant take care of an e-ticket at the gate; it has to be done at the ticket counter now. They are also examining some carry-on bags, and it seems theyve got the metal detectors tuned to a high level of sensitivity.

Eventually I make it through, but its a good thing I allowed an extra half-hour in my commute. The plane boards as usual, and if anything else is out of the ordinary, its only that the plane seems to spend less time on the runway, probably because there are fewer planes using the airport.

In New York, the cabs have deserted the Marine Air Terminal, where the Delta Shuttle arrives and departs. Cab drivers now go where the fares are.

According to one driver, there is only 60 percent of the usual demand for cabs. As a result, some may get out of the cab business or find other work to get them through this lean period.

Other than in the vicinity of the World Trade Center itself, I found it far easier to hail a cab than I can ever remember.

A city in mourning

Although a walk through midtown Manhattan does not reveal any significant differences from life pre-disaster, it soon becomes clear that the city is in the grip of obsession with the attacks and their aftermath.

It takes a lot to get New Yorkers attention, and the World Trade Center attack has done that; people are thinking about it and talking about it. My cab drivers all had opinions about it.

My first stops are piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River. Pier 92 houses the citys Office of Emergency Management, and Pier 94 houses the citys Family Assistance Center, where friends and relatives go to seek information on the missing. Outside, there is a makeshift wall constructed of plywood panels mounted on framing of two-by-fours, with a short roof to keep the rain off. On the panels are posted photos and names of people still missing. They are under a plastic covering to protect from the weather. There you see a cross-section of America, from young, attractive office assistants, to aggressive bond traders, to older workers, of all ethnic groups.

Inside, friends and relatives come to inquire about the missing, to give DNA samples and to apply for death certificates. All is done with the greatest sensitivity thats possible in a massive civic operation, which is more than you might imagine.

As I go out to the taxi stand, an older woman pulls up in a cab, takes a picture from an instant camera and asks if I was some sort of official. I say Im not, is she? She says no, she has come all the way from Louisiana to see if she might be closer to the scene and perhaps help in some way.

The piers are guarded beyond anything I have ever seen. There are policemen everywhere. I get the willies as I snap pictures of the pier buildings. I dont have a big sign that says "press" on it after all. I could be anyone and for all they know.

I take a cab down close to Ground Zero. My cab driver is Egyptian, although an American citizen. He says he has just returned after three months in Alexandria, where his family lives. His relatives are appalled by the human loss from the attacks, he says.

Ground Zero

He drops me off on Chambers Street, which is as close as the police are allowing all but emergency vehicles. From there, I continue further down on foot, shuffling alongside the police barriers with a like-minded crowd of spectators, some taking pictures, everyone either silent of speaking only in quiet tones. There is a sense of reverence or awe.

There is the faint smell of smoke in the air and on some buildings a thick coat of dust. Policemen stationed along the lines for hours wear gas masks, but passersby do not.

One jeans store, which apparently had its door open during the blast, has its entire inventory covered by a thick layer of dust. People are looking inside, in awe at it, too. But wouldnt you know, only a block away from Ground Zero, a McDonalds is serving up the usual array of Big Macs and McNuggets.

How long the WTC site will remain a sort of shrine is anyones guess. Certainly a year from now, street traffic will be much back to normal and the surrounding buildings, many windows of which were shattered by debris from the collapsing buildings, will be up and running again. Where businesses can move back into the surrounding buildings, I am sure they will.

But as for the site itself, I am not sure that developer Larry Silverstein is right about building again as soon as possible. Its hard to imagine the return of hustle and bustle to the site that is now possessed of an eerie calm. Were the site to be made a memorial park, there would be thousands of visitors daily, I am sure.

For now, people need to remember and reflect. Its hard for me to imagine a time when people will not feel called upon to do that when approaching the site of the worst disaster and mass killing in our history.

The trip back to LaGuardia is easy. I have my pick of taxis, and traffic is light. The cabbie says that this late afternoon weekday traffic is just like a work holiday in normal times.

Shaving kit under scrutiny

Once at the airport, I make it through the metal detectors uneventfully, but my bag is selected for inspection at the X-ray machine. My leisure reading is probed, as is my laundry. Then the prize: my shaving kit. I had stupidly neglected to remove my ancient nail trimmer kit, which consists of a pair of nail scissors, a nail file and a pair of tweezers. It is held up for other passengers to see, and I am told that I can pick it up on my next trip to New York. Although, on second thought, the agent says, its OK for me to bring it if I put it in my bag, go back out and check the bag at the ticket counter. This I do. I wonder why the nail kit wasnt found at Logan.

The rest of the trip is like any of the countless shuttle flights Ive taken. However, I leave Manhattan at 3:30 p.m., and my bus doesnt arrive in my Boston suburb until past 8 p.m. I know I could drive it faster, and there would be no embarrassment of my nail kit being held up as a threat to public safety.

I shouldnt complain, of course. Much of the world is used to enduring these petty delays and humiliations. But this is America. One of the beauties of our country is that we are not used to them.

One wonders when normalcy will return and what it will look like. It will certainly include many more security precautions than we were accustomed to before Sept. 11. Normalcy should include freedom from fear, however, and I am not sure at all when that day will arrive.

For the moment, the pursuit of happiness has to take a back seat as well, behind the pursuit of the terrorists and the righting of the imbalance that now exists in the world.