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Pulling Together

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At Martin’s Flag Co. in Ft. Dodge, Iowa, co-owner Scott Van Gundy says the place “has been a zoo.” He doesn’t even know how many thousands of flags the store has sold in the past week. The only thing for sure was that his supply could barely keep up with demand. Day after day he felt a growing awe at the sense of togetherness. “We can gauge patriotism by the number of flags we sell, and this has been indescribable,” says Van Gundy. “We’ve never seen anything like it before.”

All across the country there were countless such defining moments. The talk—and more important, the action—was of resolve and unity in the wake of Sept. 11. But beyond that, there was a growing spirit of community in the nation, a realization that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., which were designed to sow fear and discord, had also brought out the generosity, caring and solidarity of Americans of all kinds.

To be sure, there was anxiety over the threat of more assaults as well as disquiet about possible military action against an unseen and ruthless enemy. But nothing could dampen the feeling of hope and recovery that was everywhere in evidence around the country. Putting out an urgent appeal for blood, the American Red Cross hoped to get 150,000 pints in that first week. Instead, they received more than 250,000. Fund drives sprang up all over the United States. The American Red Cross of Southern California held an event at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles that drew 30,000 contributors in just over four hours. “Little kids have come with their piggy banks,” says spokeswoman Lourdes del Rio-Valdes, who says the effort has so far raised $236,000. In New Orleans the day after the disaster, television station WDSU started an impromptu drive on the street, asking people to give what they could. By Sunday evening station personnel were stunned to find they had collected more than $2 million. “People wanted a place to go, a place to be a part of it,” says station news director Margaret Cordes.

Nowhere was this resurgent spirit more apparent than in Manhattan, where life began at last to return to some semblance of normality. On Monday most workers returned to their jobs, and children swarmed back to school. Residents lined streets to cheer the new princes of the city—the weary firefighters and police who earn roughly $50,000 a year to risk their lives on a regular basis and who lost 429 of their comrades in the towers’ collapse. Yet this new breed of hero spent one 20-hour day after another searching through the rubble in hopes of discovering survivors. (As of press time on Sept. 18, officials still had not officially switched from a rescue to a recovery operation, but there seemed almost no hope that anyone else would be pulled out alive.) Meanwhile eateries from the tony Tribeca Grill to Dunkin’ Donuts were sending meals free of charge to the rescue workers. Individuals donated so much food and clothing that much of it may never be used. When the NFL hesitated before canceling Sunday’s football games, the two New York City-area teams, the Giants and the Jets, all but vowed they would boycott. “I don’t think anyone in New York cares about football, including us as players,” said the Giants’ star defensive end Michael Strahan. When baseball finally resumed with six games Monday night, players and fans, who turned out in modest numbers, marked the return with moments of silence and the singing of patriotic anthems.

The financial world, which the terrorists had tried so hard to cripple, returned to life as well. On the Monday morning following the attacks, the stock markets reopened to heavy losses but no sense of debilitating panic. And corporate America was contributing to the recovery in a more direct fashion. In the week since the attacks, companies had pledged some $180 million to disaster charities, including the Twin Towers Fund, established to help the families of victims. Even the underworld got in step. With so many police on the streets and so many residents glued to the television, crime in New York City was down 30 percent for the week.

Still, it is impossible to minimize the formidable task of recovery that lies ahead. Nearly 100 people remained in the hospital. In the first week alone, more than 50,000 tons of debris were removed from the Trade Center. Experts guess that it will take months to complete the cleanup. There was also little prospect for quick closure for the families of the 5,422 people still missing. In an effort to identify as many remains as possible, authorities asked families to bring in hairbrushes and toothbrushes used by the possible victims so that DNA samples could be taken.

At the Pentagon there was a certain sense of relief mixed with the anguish. Officials there originally feared that upward of 800 people might have been killed when hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the building. In the end the number of dead on the ground was 125—still horrific, but any revision downward had to be counted as merciful. As it turned out, just this past May, Pentagon staffers had practiced their response in the event that a Boeing 757—the same plane as Flight 77—should hit the military headquarters. That foresight, it now appears, surely saved lives. “It would have been much, much worse,” says Air Force Surgeon Gen. Paul K. Carlton Jr., “if our medical teams had not practiced the event.”

In the aftermath, the rest of the country braced for a slew of heightened security measures. By Saturday all major airports except Ronald Reagan National, just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital, had been allowed to reopen. In all, some 140,000 domestic flights were canceled during the shutdown. And it is clear that air-travel procedures will be radically changed. In addition to banning curbside check-in and any carry-on objects that could be used as weapons, authorities plan to add 1,000 armed sky marshals—there are fewer than 100 now—to domestic flights.

In light of the attacks, the doomsday plotlines of upcoming action movies presented Hollywood with an urgent problem. Warner Bros. (like PEOPLE, part of AOL Time Warner) postponed the scheduled Oct. 5 opening of the new Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller Collateral Damage, the tale of a firefighter out for revenge after his wife and child are killed by a terrorist’s bomb. “Audiences [will] want upbeat romantic comedies,” predicts producer Ashok Amritraj, who ordered a rewrite of the Jackie Chan movie Nose Bleed, which featured a fight atop the Empire State Building. By the same token, the television networks largely returned to normal programming on Sept. 17, and even the late-night comics were wholly reverential. David Letterman abandoned his traditional monologue to talk about the tragedy, and guest Dan Rather broke into tears.

In the meantime, the nation already had two leading men whose performances were drawing critical praise. In New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a capable but sometimes combative politico, emerged as a healing, inspirational leader (see page 59). Wearing his fire department baseball cap, the hugely popular mayor, who must leave office at the end of the year because of term limits, at times had to fight back tears as he tirelessly made his rounds but somehow managed to provide doses of needed optimism as well. “We have never been braver,” he told one audience. “We’ve never been stronger.” Likewise, President Bush, initially criticized for not flying directly back to Washington from a swing through Florida when the attacks occurred, regained ground in the ensuing days. With a national television address and his visit to New York City, where he embraced rescue workers, he saw his approval rating jump from 51 percent to 86 percent, an unprecedented rise even allowing for the rally-round-the-flag effect during times of national crisis.

Also helping to allay some public fears was that law-enforcement authorities seemed to be making significant progress. All 19 of the suspects who apparently took part in hijacking the four jetliners had been identified, and at least 75 other people had been detained for questioning. Indeed, the FBI received some 96,000 tips and had more than 4,000 agents working on the case. Officials were exploring possible connections between the hijackers and Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire accused of masterminding the atrocity.

In the days after the attack, the President boldly declared that the United States was at war with the world’s terrorists, and the Pentagon announced a call-up of 35,500 reservists. It was soon clear, however, that while the White House intended to strike militarily against terrorists, root out their hidden bank accounts and apply economic and diplomatic sanctions against any country harboring them, it did not intend to launch a full-scale ground campaign in places that have provided safe haven for bin Laden, like Afghanistan. The President cautioned that the effort against terror will no doubt take years. But he also left no doubt as to the outcome. “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon,” he said during his New York City tour.

As for the World Trade Center, Mayor Giuliani at first suggested that the Twin Towers be rebuilt. Yet a replica might have trouble finding tenants, since prospects would understandably be worried about future attacks. He later clarified his remarks to mean only that some form of new trade center be erected. But whatever structures replace the iconographic towers, and no matter how long it takes to build them, it is clear from the actions of people throughout the country that the resurrection of the American spirit has already begun.