In Attack’s Aftermath, The Ordinary Appears Sinister

By now, a month since the attack on the World Trade Center, one might expect life at the 19th Precinct to have returned to something approaching normal. And while it appears to have done so on the surface-the shock and grief have receded, and there is none of the frenetic activity or improvisation that characterized the initial reaction to the crisis-surface appearances can apparently be deceiving.

“It’s 1,000 percent different,” stated a police officer, referring to life before and after Sept. 11 and citing the city’s continuing state of heightened alert. “You can see it by the officers that are visibly posted at some locations.

“It’s not like you’re on patrol just for New York,” he added. “You’re on patrol for the nation. You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Cops and firefighters have understood from the moment they took the oath of office, if not before, that, as one cop put it, “When the average person is running away from it, you’re running into it.”

While all cops may have appreciated that concept before the first jet slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, a new realization of it now permeates the job and their lives. Officers who lived out on the Island or in Rockland County may have taken comfort in the past from the fact that their suburban neighborhoods insulated them from the problems they faced while on the job in the city.

But too many of their colleagues and neighbors caught in the collapsing towers never returned home to those same neighborhoods of middle-class homes and neatly trimmed lawns and outdoor barbecues. Terrorism, it turns out, has an insidious way of ignoring geographic boundaries.

“Some of them kissed their wives goodbye as they were sleeping,” observed one police officer, referring to his brethren in both the NYPD and FDNY. “They woke up like it was a normal day, never to return.”

The officer added, “The morning kiss is more than a peck on the cheek now.”

Another lingering symptom of the attacks-proof that life will require more time than expected to return to normal-is the number of phone calls the police are receiving from average citizens reporting what they consider to be suspicious individuals or behavior.

“They say things like, ‘A Middle Eastern person was on the telephone for a long time,'” said a police official. “It looks suspicious; it could be normal. People are reaching, even though they’re truly trying to help.”

An example of raw nerves and that heightened sensitivity to security occurred shortly before 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 27, when 911 received a call regarding a suspicious vehicle parked in front of 1661 First Avenue. Several things made the vehicle appear suspicious, especially in a climate where events that once seemed pedestrian-the siren of a passing police car, a fire engine responding to an alarm, a plane flying overhead-now seem fraught with peril.

The truck was a Ryder rental truck. Furthermore, it had temporary Oklahoma license plates. And there were several parking tickets on the windshield.

When the cops who responded to the scene canvassed the area, they learned that local residents had observed the truck sitting in the same location for approximately two weeks. A computer check of the truck’s license plate revealed that it hadn’t been stolen. However, a subsequent telephone conversation between the NYPD and the Ryder Corporation revealed that it had.

At that point, the police set up a safety zone around the truck and the 19th Precinct’s commanding officer, Howard Lawrence, its detective squad and the Emergency Service Unit hurried over. E.S.U. inspected the vehicle and requested the bomb squad. Stores in the area were closed and traffic halted.

The bomb squad arrived and declared the vehicle safe.

It seems that even in a situation like this, where all signs point to evil intent, there may be a perfectly logical and harmless explanation. A follow-up investigation revealed that the vehicle hadn’t been stolen. It had been rented by the same individual, an East 60th Street resident, for the previous 15 days.

He’d rented it for one week, then decided to keep it for a second week. There was a one-day lapse between the first and second rental periods, explaining why a “stolen” label hadn’t been removed from the truck’s file. The customer promised to move the truck promptly.

In Attack’s Aftermath, The Ordinary Appears Sinister