Volume 19 Issue 35 | January 12 - 18, 2007

Downtown Notebook

The smell of fear itself

By Angela Benfield

I was talking to a friend and colleague on the phone when she blurted out, “It smells like gas in here; the whole building smells of gas.” I was worried for her safety, not realizing — even though I was two neighborhoods away — in a few minutes, the same foul stench would cause me to be concerned for my own safety.

“The smell is all over the city,” she said, “It’s on the internet.” My heart dropped, and I felt a wave of panic go through my body. Immediately, I started to think this was a terrorist attack. We hung up, and I turned on the radio to find out what was going on.

The report said that a noxious smell of natural gas was blanketing the city, but no one knew where it was coming from or why. Reports were from Battery Park City (where I live) to Washington Heights and even as far as Jersey City. Something was not right.

I sat at my desk at work wondering how to react. There was a time in my life that something like this would barely concern me. I would feel secure knowing that the fire department was aware of the problem, and they would figure it out. Since 9/11, those days are gone.

It’s been over five years now, but the memories of that horrible day still linger. Not in my mind, but in my soul. Yes, I have moved on with my life, and I do, for the most part, feel safe. But I know I am changed. I’ve encountered terror first hand — as did everyone in Lower Manhattan — and that experience has left me with a knee-jerk reaction of fear. It overrides any common sense or logic when faced with the possibility of another attack.

There was nothing I could do except wait for more news. I called my children’s’ school at P.S./I.S. 89 to find out if they could smell the odor. “We heard about it and we don’t smell anything,” the school secretary said. I couldn’t decide if I should pick up my son and daughter anyway.

The difference is that on 9/11, early after the attack, I felt that school was the safest place for them to be. Don’t get me wrong — I do feel that they are protected in their school, and I know that the teachers and staff would do anything to keep them out of harm’s way. Not one child was unaccounted for after 9/11. But if these are going to be our last minutes on earth, I want us to be together.

This is what I mean when I say I have changed. These kinds of thoughts would not be considered rational before 9/11. I would be called “paranoid” or “fanatical” if I told someone that I wanted to pick my children up from school so we could all be together when we die. I’m sure there are people who still consider these thoughts to be outrageous.

Maybe I need more therapy…or maybe, this is how we are supposed to feel. This is what Osama and his henchmen wanted. For Americans to know fear…to feel dread…and to wonder when we will be hit again.

Finally, Mayor Bloomberg came on the radio. He assured us that although it’s an unpleasant smell, the air is safe to breathe. No one is in danger. For the first time in about a half an hour (which felt like three hours), my body loosened up from the tension. I took a deep sigh and went back to work. I don’t know why, but I felt completely secure.

By the time another hour had passed, I almost forgot about the incident. Then a friend sent an email saying, “Did you have burritos last night?” with a link to a report stating, “Mysterious gas-like odor covered much of Manhattan.” It’s good to know that although some things have changed in this country, we still haven’t lost our sense of humor.

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