People Staff
October 01, 2001 12:00 PM

As the Twin Towers and the Pentagon smoldered in ruins, Americans wept for our dead, feared for our lives and raged at an insidious foe. But when the initial shock subsided, the nation emerged with renewed energy, passion and resolve. New Yorkers and Washingtonians displayed a can-do gallantry, sending hot meals to beleaguered rescuers, saving pets from damaged apartment houses, soothing the bereft. Across the country flags draped the windows of tenements and mansions alike. No doubt the irony is lost on our enemies, but if the mission of the terrorist is to divide and weaken, then the atrocities of Sept. 11 were a resounding failure: America has drawn far closer—and far stronger.

Fleur Perry Lang, 26

A waitress to the cosmopolitan elite serves haute cuisine to New York City’s true nobility

As this most socially stratified city grappled with grief and rage, New Yorkers forged some unexpected bonds. On the evening of Sept. 14, a speedboat called The Screamer raced down the Hudson bearing the staff and owners of some of Manhattan’s chicest eateries—from Daniel on the Upper East Side to Robert De Niro’s downtown Tribeca Grill—and filled with four-star takeout for the rescuers at Ground Zero—firefighters and sandhogs who, one could wager, aren’t regulars at any of those establishments. So many people had given them cookies and crackers,” says Fleur Perry Lang, who works as a server at Daniel. “They needed a warm meal—mashed potatoes, meatloaf, fish stew.”

The program is the work of Chefs with Spirit, a culinary alliance (it also includes gourmet markets) formed three days after the crashes. “We have prepared a lot of food, maybe 12,000 meals,” says Marty Shapiro, 45, general manager of Tribeca Grill, just seven blocks from the WTC, which has been closed since the attacks and now serves as a dropoff point for delivery trucks. “We are trying to keep it simple, individual and healthy—turkey, avocado, roast beef. In the morning we do egg sandwiches and pastries.”

At Daniel, Lang and some 30 other staffers spent hours grating, peeling, cooking and packing. Then, at 5 p.m. on Sept. 14, owner Daniel Boulud called for 10 volunteers to ferry the bounty to lower Manhattan. “It was a beautiful night that night—the sky was all pink, except for that cloud of smoke coming from Ground Zero,” recalls Lang. The Screamer docked five blocks from the disaster site, where “everything is covered in white-gray ash,” says Frenchwoman Lang, whose husband of three years, Adam, 32, a private chef, has also cooked for the cause. “What’s also incredible is the silence. Even though you see hoses watering down small fires or workers trying to cut down the iron, it’s really a dead calm.”

She and her colleagues got right to work doling out meals aboard a docked cruise boat, which serves as a floating shelter for the famished and exhausted rescue workers. Moved to the brink of tears, Lang couldn’t speak to her beneficiaries. “They looked so tired, and I don’t think they really wanted to talk about it,” she says. “My friend Celia and I went to the top of the boat, and there was a fireman sleeping on the floor. We felt like we had violated his privacy.”

All told, dozens of local restaurants have rallied to the rescuers’ aid, delivering tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of food and drink. “These guys, they look you dead in the eye and tell you thanks,” says Josh Capon, the executive chef at Manhattan’s trendy Canteen restaurant, who whipped up 100 pounds of baked ziti and 30 gallons of Tuscan bean soup. “The one thing you never hear out here is, ‘You’re welcome.’ Somebody says thank you, you say thank you.”

Raquel Dominguez, 38

In the spirit of Betsy Ross, a refugee from Castro’s Cuba turns out flags for a united nation

Meticulously, Raquel Dominguez, a seamstress, rolls her cutting blade over a bolt of red-white-and-blue cotton, slicing off a strip. Then she passes the fabric across the table to Petronilla Cedeno, who scissors it into 10 American flags, 4 in. by 6 in. each. Over and again, for the next five hours, the women repeat the process, eventually producing 4,000 copies of the Stars and Stripes. And that won’t even begin to satisfy the requests flooding Freedom Flags of North Miami, one of few shops in South Florida where, amid the nationwide surge of patriotism following this month’s terrorist attacks, you can still buy Old Glory.

“I’ve got orders on my desk I couldn’t fill in a zillion years,” says owner Barbara Dabney, 51. But since Sept. 11, she has sold more than 100,000 flags (they range in price from $1 to $15, depending on size) thanks to frenetic 12-hour days logged by the company’s 14 seamstresses—all immigrants and some, like Cuban-born Dominguez, refugees from oppression. “My brother and I and four others came to America on a boat in 1989—it took us three days,” she says. “Our compass broke. We didn’t know if we would make it.”

Forty miles off Key West, they were rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard patrol. “The first thing I saw as they pulled their boat up was the American flag,” says Dominguez, the married mother of a 2-year-old daughter, who was naturalized two years ago. “That flag meant everything in the world to us. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”

The pace has been grueling. “No breaks, no lunch—it is hard, but I don’t mind,” 38-year-old Eulogia Vargas, who fled war-torn Nicaragua 11 years ago, says as she presses the pedal of her sewing machine. Indeed, even as the phones ring off the hook and walk-in customers line up around the block, Freedom’s workers handle the flag with their accustomed reverence. “They respect it so much. They don’t want to let the fabric drop on the floor,” says Dabney, whose employees earn from $6.50 to $12.50 an hour—and aren’t in it for the overtime.

“I wish I could do something more to help, to do something up there where the people were killed,” says Dominguez. “What I can do is work here, and get these flags out.”

Sister Cindy Catherine, 49

Surrounded by hell on earth, she offers solace, strength and faith to anguished New Yorkers

The faces are young, most of them, some with features blurred in black-and-white snapshots, others formally posed beneath mortarboards and fire hats, still others caught under the tree on a distant Christmas morning. Goldstein, Moroney, Wong—each one imbued with an agonizing beauty. They call it the Wall of Prayers, a shrine to missing loved ones at the entrance of Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital. Here Sister Cindy Catherine of the Episcopal Order of St. Helena joins other clergy—Christian, Jewish and Muslim—in frequent prayer services and offers comfort to a city seized by fear, fury and grief.

“Some people just want to hold our hand,” drawls Sister Cindy Catherine, who was relocated to New York from Augusta, Ga., a month ago. “Sometimes they just want to tell us how wonderful their loved one is.” Especially vivid was an 11-year-old boy whose sister was missing. He’d spent the night at the hospital and refused to go home. “He said he just didn’t know where else to be,” she recalls. “He never said she was dead. I never said she was dead. But that was the implication. I talked about taking care of himself and that if he stayed here every night he was going to collapse and become a victim himself.”

Sister Cindy Catherine is only one of innumerable clergy and counselors trying to heal broken spirits. Raphael Barberg, a Buffalo police lieutenant and deacon of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, made the seven-plus-hour train trip to work with rescuers at Ground Zero. “The guys with their faces, the burned-out, zoned-out look—I wanted to make sure they were okay,” explains Barberg, 35, the married father of two whose parish consists largely of Arab-Americans. “You could see it in their eyes, the urgency, the terror of uncovering the next rock and finding the body they were looking for. They’re wondering why. What does this accomplish, to destroy human life like this? I didn’t have the answers.”

Indeed, many Americans have seen their faith shaken by the events of Sept. 11. “People are angry,” says Sister Cindy Catherine. “They’ll walk up and say, ‘How can you believe?’ All of that is valid. It’s not our job to try to move them from where they are.” As for her own faith, “I believe God was in the rubble, and God is here now.”

Nicole Blackman, 32

Working round-the-clock, she delivers niceties and necessities to the city’s rescue workers

“Do you need some coffee, honey?” asks Nicole Blackman as a pair of bleary recovery workers approach. “Take what you need, then take two more.” As they depart with steaming cups, one worker nods at Blackman and mumbles, “She’s like from another planet: home.”

In fact, Blackman is from just over the East River, in Brooklyn. But in the week after the attacks, her home base has been the volunteer command center set up by the city at Stuyvesant High School, a few blocks from the World Trade Center rubble. “It was somewhat chaotic at first,” she says. “We had a couple of paper plates with cookies on them, and there were piles of food everywhere. Now we have a system, and people know where to go for socks and where to go for cell-phone batteries.”

In the course of 18 hours Blackman, the de facto leader of about two dozen volunteers, has doled out sandwiches, energy bars and vitamins to some 1,200 rescue workers. In the process, she has gotten to know many of their names and their needs. “I’m their mommy figure right now,” says Blackman, a voice-over actress for commercials. “I care about them and know what they need. I know who’s a diabetic, who needs daily vitamins, who doesn’t eat ham.” Donors, she notes in amazement, seem to have thought of everything. “Someone made sure vegan rescue workers had soy milk,” she says. “That stuns me.” So does the ongoing outpouring of offers to help. “We’ve seen the worst of what humanity can do, but now we’re seeing the best,” she says. “I’ll stay here until they throw me out or until I pass out.”

Kerry McGinnis, 30

Reuniting frantic owners with their stranded pets, she spreads much-needed cheer

Cats, dogs, birds, turtles, fish, a ferret and a chinchilla: Those are just some of the pets that Kerry McGinnis, a kennel manager for Manhattan’s Humane Society, has helped rescue from lower Manhattan’s evacuated apartments since Sept. 11. It hasn’t been easy. “It took us over an hour to catch one woman’s cats,” says McGinnis, who, along with some 30 other volunteers, accompanies residents on the pet-retrieval missions. “We found the first cat, covered in dust, and her rabbit in its cage, but we were flipping the couch, looking under the bed for the other cat. The owner was crying. We finally found it on the top shelf of a closet.”

The first animal rescuers to set up operations at Pier 40 on the Hudson River, now a command post where the city’s 20,000-plus displaced residents can get police escorts for brief visits to their still off-limits apartments, McGinnis and Michael Weltz, a Humane Society vet, have been working 12-hour shifts and have helped save more than 200 pets so far. Despite days without food or water, most of the animals have been found alive. “She doesn’t just rescue pets,” says Patricia Sietz-Honig, who retrieved her two cats on Sept. 16 with McGinnis’s help, “she reunites families.”

McGinnis knows exactly what she means. “People have comfort in having their animals back,” says the Ohio native, who moved to Manhattan six years ago. “For some a pet may be all they have that survived. Parents couldn’t wait to tell children, ‘I’ve got the kitty, and she’s safe.’ ”

McGinnis’s mission hasn’t left her much time with her own pets—two dogs, a cat, five tortoises and 30 fish—back in the midtown apartment she shares with boyfriend Michael Govia, an actor. But she doesn’t mind. “I’ve lost my neighbor, who worked in one of the towers,” she says. “So it’s been difficult to go home.” When she does leave each night, “people cheer and throw thank-you letters into my car,” she says. “We are all trying to do what we can.”

Mohammed Tabibi, 20, and Gail Batt, 54

An Afghani-American student and a retiree forge a bountiful union for Pentagon rescuers

Compassion was his first thought, but Mohammed Tabibi had a second reason to help the rescue effort at the Pentagon, in his native Arlington, Va. The only child of Afghani immigrants who came to this country in the 1970s, he felt he had to make a stand. That was even before he knew the attack had been linked to Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden, who has been sheltered by Afghanistan’s repressive Taliban government. “People look at us and think, ‘They did this,’ not seeing us for who we are,” says Tabibi, a third-year psychology major at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “We didn’t do this. We are Americans.”

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, Tabibi teamed up with Batt, a retired Transportation Department manager and fellow volunteer at the Arlington County Police Department, and “hit up every restaurant and grocery store in the vicinity,” she says. Their first stop: the vast Fresh Fields market. “The manager and her staff were loading up carts like it was a game show,” Batt recalls. Over the next 17 hours, the duo gathered pro bono bounty from fooderies high-end and low. “We all want to be involved,” says Kim Gotcher, manager of the Italian Store, a specialty sandwich shop. “I was honored to be asked.”

Altruism is nothing new for Batt, who six years ago began counseling crime victims for the Arlington police. “This small effort is just a way to put my arms around the victims and say, ‘I’m here,’ ” she says. For his part, defiance is Tabibi’s goal. “I love this country so,” he says. “I do hope this will mean the Taliban is destroyed once and for all. That is the only good that will come of this.”

Julia DeVita, 9

Her beloved cousin missing, a fourth-grader turns lemons into lemonade—and cash

Most days, when they’re selling cool drinks and cookies to buy ‘N Sync’s latest CD, Julia DeVita and her best friend Caroline White, both 9, may clear around $8. Last weekend the girls, along with a few friends from their Charlotte, N.C., neighborhood, made more than $1,000. Then, after school on Monday, they raised an additional $1,400—all for the Red Cross. “We wish we could make a $10 million donation like Bill Gates,” says Julia, referring to Microsoft’s gift. “But we’re doing what we can.”

That has turned out to be plenty. Setting up the curbside stand in memory of Julia’s 23-year-old cousin Jonathan Cappello, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee who worked on the 105th floor of 1 World Trade Center and remains missing, “gives them a sense of pride,” says Julia’s father, Rich, 38 and a financial planner. “Instead of watching replays of the tragedy, they can channel their energy into something valuable.” Now the children’s gift is even more valuable thanks to neighbor Shannon Wesley, 28, wife of Charlotte Hornets guard David Wesley. “Every time I drive by, I feel the need to donate, because they’re working so hard,” she says. “So I got our Hornets’ Wives Organization to agree to match the money they raise.” Her husband soon offered to do the same. For Julia, who saw one man stuff $100 in her pickle jar and whose schoolmates have been handing her donations in the hallways, helping take part in such generosity has offered her comfort in a time of sorrow. “I’m really angry. I even want to cuss,” she says. “But this way I can help other people. It’s a way to say I’m proud to be an American.”

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