Volume 17 • Issue 11 / August 06 - 12, 2004

Downtown reacts to terror threat

By Elizabeth O’Brien

It wasn’t quite business as usual on Monday, as Downtowners went about their routines amid heightened security in response to terror threats against the Citigroup buildings and the New York Stock Exchange.

But many residents and workers greeted the alert with resolve, saying it would not cause them to change their behavior.

“I don’t scare that easily,” said Jessie MacDonald, 73, a resident of Independence Plaza North who, like many Downtowners, witnessed the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

MacDonald was among those who expressed skepticism about the timing of the latest threats, coming as they did just weeks before the Republican National Convention comes to New York and months before the presidential election.

“I guess I’m a Michael Moore fan, but I feel a lot of this is politically motivated,” said Jim Ballard, who has lived Downtown since 1969.

One block from I.P.N., at the Citigroup building on Greenwich St., yellow police tape funneled entering workers into a narrow passageway flanked by two private security guards checking identification outside the building. A worker said that Citigroup employees, who are normally waved past metal detectors after showing I.D., had to put their bags through the detectors on Monday. Security guards checked under the hoods of black cars waiting to pick up executives.

A new queuing system for the black cars temporarily took effect in response to the heightened threat. Police asked the black cars to move away from the Citigroup building, said Judy Duffy, assistant district manager of Community Board 1, whereas before they would line up around the block next to the building. For several evenings, cars stretched along the east side of Greenwich St. all the way up to Canal St., but Duffy said on Thursday that officials agreed that day to revert to the former system.

While these security precautions may have reassured Citigroup employees, several people admitted to having jitters about coming to work on Monday.

“I was very scared, very apprehensive, but you have to do what you have to do,” said a 44-year-old administrative coordinator who declined to give her name. “You can’t let them win.”

Others leaned on fate or faith.

“Whatever happens, happens — it’s in God’s hands,” said Jason Palumbo, 32, a trading system worker.

Lee Powell Jr., 19, an intern at Citigroup, said building management had held a few evacuation drills in the two months he had been on the job. On Monday, workers were not given the option of taking the day off, several employees said.

The intense security surrounding potential targets might dissuade any terrorists who had been planning to attack them, some said.

“The element of surprise is what they go for, and this seems like a big media event,” said Keith Bennett, 47, who was visiting from Atlanta and had stopped at Washington Market Park. His wife, Cindy, said she would have cancelled or postponed their trip had she known about the terror alerts before they left home.

To augment extra security at the identified terror targets, a new fire department rescue squad is protecting Downtown. Rescue Six, which is sharing space with Ladder 20 at 251 Lafayette St., was scheduled to debut during the Republican National Convention, but its operations started a few weeks early in response to the latest terror warnings, a F.D.N.Y. spokesperson said. The 25-person company specializes in high altitude and other rescue operations and carries special meters and detectors, the spokesperson said.

Despite these precautions, some decided they’d rather be elsewhere.

Teresa Coles, a nanny, said that her Tribeca employers asked if she would take her two young charges, ages 2 and 4, to their country house Upstate. Even the perception of a threat can cause problems in a densely packed city, said Coles, who was watching the children in Washington Market Park.

The terror threat was also on the minds of mothers and nannies in Battery Park City’s Rockefeller Park.

Jung Yum Witt, a Battery Park City mother, said she would consider leaving the city permanently if another attack happened.

“This is the best place in Manhattan to be a parent, but it’s not worth it the second time around,” said Witt, whose family lived in the neighborhood on Sept. 11, 2001.

Ann Marie Cooleen, a Tribeca mother, is expecting her third child in September. She was living in Battery Park City on Sept. 11, 2001, when her second child was six weeks old. Cooleen said it didn’t make sense to leave the area for a short time because the heightened alert might continue indefinitely. Still, she said the timing of this recent threat disturbed her.

“There’s something about having a baby and disaster down here,” Cooleen said.

Miriam Branham, a Battery Park City nanny, said her employers gave her a cell phone after Sept. 11, 2001. On Monday, they gave her extra cash and a small pocket radio tuned to the news station 1010 Wins, Branham said. But her employers did not tell her to restrict where she traveled with their 3-year-old daughter, she added.

Meanwhile, farther Uptown in the West Village, Roberta Lasky said she was avoiding Battery Park City as a precaution. Lasky said she wasn’t panicking, but simply preferred to stick closer to home in case anything happened.

“I’m in my little, peaceful neighborhood and we’re taking it day by day,” said Lasky, who was playing with her two children at the Bleecker St. playground.

But some Battery Park City residents said they were staying put. Irene Vernadakis, 39, a Battery Park City mother of two, said she never considered leaving the neighborhood after Sept. 11, 2001.

As unsettling as the heightened alerts may be, Vernadakis said, they were becoming a fact of life: “I guess this is what living in Downtown means these days.”


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