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Behind the Lines

NEW YORK - Three inches of soot still sat on the hood of the car, now a heap of shredded metal, six blocks from where the World Trade Center towers collapsed Tuesday. Someone had tucked a carnation under the skeleton of the windshield wiper. The make of the car - undistinguishable. The tires - melted away.

Two blocks closer to the smoking rubble, a firefighter shouted into his phone, "It was just total, total devastation, just like the movie reels." He brushed a layer of white ash from heavy coat. "Yes honey, I had my mask on. Are you kidding, with all that asbestos in the air?"

Behind the police line at Canal Street this Saturday, set up a mile from the site of the former Twin Towers to keep tourists and gawkers out, the chaos has begun to dissipate. In its place, workers methodically faced the clean up and recovery.

Former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley stood alone under a powerless stoplight.

"I just wanted to pay my respects to the firefighters and policemen," Bradley said as he turned to walk back to the city. "This is something where you need everybody and need everybody to come together. When in a crisis, Americans come together. We're each other's neighbors."

Bradley glanced back one more time, taking in the gutted skyscrapers, before leaving the site. Behind him lingered dozens of volunteers pacing the sidewalks, unable to offer their help. Volunteers from across the country flocked to New York to assist in the clean up efforts in lower Manhattan and found a different blockade than the gaping tourists back at Canal Street: oversupply.

"A little more organization at the volunteer centers would be helpful," said Bob Connolly, who owns a construction company in New Jersey and came with his three brothers to offer their expertise. "When people first show up, all the tradespeople should be pooled into one area -- the doctors in one section, the volunteer firemen in another and construction personnel like myself in another. Right now there's a lot of people with curiosity, but we have the experience and want to volunteer."

Connolly and his brothers, wearing facemasks, goggles and orange vests, had stood around for two days awaiting their chance to go in with their torch cutters and relieve tired workers. One of the brothers' friends was in Tower Two Tuesday morning and remains unaccounted for, and they said they will not go home until they can do something for him.

"There's always hope," Connolly said, taking off his hardhat to wipe the sweat from his brow. "That's why the clean up is going as slow as it is. You pull the wrong piece out and everything comes crashing down. Who knows who could be left in there."

Because of the oversupply of volunteers and donations of non-perishable items, city officials now ask only for monetary aid.

As if a testament to the overwhelming support, Salvation Army trucks camped out along the street corners and passed out hundreds of water bottles, apples, Gatorade, Oreos, baby wipes, toothpaste -- anything an exhausted rescue worker or exiled apartment tenant might need.

While waiting for a friend to enter his apartment for the first time and retrieve some personal items, high school students Elizabeth Lohr and Ayla Bunyak sat on a jagged sidewalk playing cards.

"They're just starting to let people home," Lohr said.

The teenagers attended Stuyvesant High School, located four blocks from the World Trade Center, and saw the "whole catastrophe," as Lohr called it, from the window of their government classroom.

"I saw a fireball, and my first reaction was, 'I have to call my mom and tell her to get out of Tower Two,'" Lohr said, lighting up a Marlboro Red. "People at first said that the first crash was an accident. Well, I saw it, and accidents don't happen straight on."

But Lohr's mother was late for work that day and had not even made it into the building.

Bunyak, of Middle Eastern descent, agreed that she knew a lot of people who "got lucky" that day and dodged harm, but what worries her is what is to come.

"More than New York right now, we're concerned with what our country's going to do and that we're giving [President] Bush ultimate power," the 17-year-old Bunyak said. "America's a virgin to war-torn soil. We're starting to resemble the rest of the world."

Fallen power lines sprawled across the street from the girls, a hint of the substantial amount of cables knocked out in lower Manhattan.

"Slowly but surely were rebuilding the network," said Vincent Mirance of conEdison, the area supplier of power. "You'll see cable lying in the street that may have 13,000 volts running through it, so I'd suggest not stepping on it."

Mirance could not give an estimate of the time frame for when the power will be reestablished throughout the area.

Shaun Newby of Verizon sat down on a concrete blockade and rolled back his neck. He explained that when the World Trade Center collapsed Tuesday, falling debris damaged a major phone-switching facility and led to the destruction of millions of private and public lines.

"All the cable is under water right now, or covered in oil and gas," he said. "Until they get that cleaned up, we can't do anything."

A shout rang out from a National Guard soldier, commanding photographers to clear the street and make way for the fire engine coming through. The scattered pedestrians returned the shrieks of sirens with applause and cheers of appreciation.

"The hardest part of being down here has been the looks on the faces of the firemen," said Cpl. Joseph Colli, a New York national guardsman wearing a full camouflage uniform as if he were in the middle of battle. "And they keep going back in there."

Colli stretched out his arms to block an eager woman from getting past the final blockade before Ground Zero. After showing her apartment key and being informed her building was not yet secure, she retreated, arm in arm with her male companion.

"You'll see a hundred firemen walking away from the burning core of the building and look like they have been through hell," Colli said, adjusting his netted helmet.

Yet as people pause to take deliberate breaths, inhaling the gritty air, a sense of solemn duty defines the scene rather than fear. People walk slowly, but determinedly now. Some people smile. Police officers are patient. Cooperation is the code.

Behind the police line back on Canal Street, people stare skyward at the still rising smoke and steam. While disbelief crosses their faces, the unifying factor among them is something more. A desire to make sense out of it all. A desire to return to normalcy. They all stand, a sea of people from one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, clad in red, white and blue and star-spangled bandanas, New York tries to cope, together.


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