Escape From New York

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I
was riding a commuter ferry into mid-town Manhattan when the first
hijacked airliner crashed into the World Trade Center. The people
around me gasped and pointed in the direction of the Twin Towers,
allowing me to turn and see the first plume of smoke rising off
the top. A gaping hole could be seen in the side of the tower. People
on the ferry did not act very concerned, figuring it was a freak
accident perhaps involving a commuter jet or a small helicopter.
Nobody could sense the imminent tragedy that was about to unfold.
Neither could anyone guess how difficult it would be to return home
to safety.

As
I reached Times Square on a bus, the second crash occurred. The
news came over my radio earphones that repeated explosions were
occurring in lower Manhattan. Though I was a couple of miles away
from the scene, I could see the smoke billowing from both Twin Towers
now. Crowds gathered to watch the giant television screens in Times
Square, as if they were viewing a rock concert. I hustled into my
office expecting to exchange stories with my co-workers, thinking
the worst was over. Now watching a cable news program, I saw the
first tower collapse and learned that desperate people were leaping
from the second. Explosions were also occurring in Washington, DC,
and terrorism was definitely to blame.

Everyone
in my office realizes immediately that they are in potential danger
by being so close to Times Square. Would the terrorists decide to
make another example of the show business capital and tourist attraction?
I hurry outside, past the throngs of shocked onlookers, plotting
a strategy for getting out of New York alive. My cell phone is useless,
with the phone tower no longer operating on top of the World Trade
Center. Calling my wife is out of the question. Over the radio,
I hear that every mode of transportation out of the city is blocked.
My first lesson in government crisis management has begun.

My
sense of frustration builds. The least safe place to be at this
moment is Manhattan, yet the government has closed all the avenues
of escape — the subway, the bridges, and the tunnels. The streets
back to the ferry terminal are blocked by New York police, so I
can't take a bus. I must walk towards the water. Yet that exposes
me to a different threat — a rough neighborhood. Will rioters come
out of the woodwork and take advantage of the panic and mayhem?
I look around me to find no police close enough to protect me from
crime. They're too busy blocking the intersections two blocks behind
me. I quickly remove the cash from my wallet, tucking it into a
safe place in case I am robbed.

I
make it through unscathed and arrive at the ferry terminal just
in the nick of time, as thousands of New Jerseyans with similar
ideas start lining up for a ride back across the Hudson River. Over
the radio, I hear more reports about gridlocked traffic and trapped
citizens. Thank God, I think to myself, the ferry is operated by
a private company with no connection to the city of New York, or
either state government. The bureaucrats will not be able to block
my escape now.

Within
a remarkable twenty minutes, I am walking safely on the other side
of the river. The New York Waterway does not even charge people
for the service, and hundreds of grateful people are thanking the
ferry workers for their generosity. The company has built up lots
of goodwill with its customers on this day.

Unfortunately,
the private buses at the ferry landing in Weehawken, NJ, are overwhelmed,
and I face the most arduous part of my journey home. It takes a
long time to board a bus that is heading in my direction. Lines
of hot, sweaty, and worried people are waiting patiently for a ride
home. When I finally reach my destination, I am greatly relieved.
Yet I think about the poor women and children I saw walking along
the side of the road. I climb into my car and make my way through
traffic back towards the ferry landing. Surely, I can get someone
home quicker than the buses can.

At
the first traffic light I encounter my first obstacle: a police
officer directing traffic away from the ferry landing. Here again,
some government agency is trying to stop someone from getting home
quickly and safely. Fortunately, the cop is on foot, and I turn
past him and slam my foot on the accelerator. At the ferry landing,
I find two grief-stricken ladies carting heavy bags and luggage
down the side of the road. Both gratefully accept my offer of a
ride, thanking me profusely all the way home.

I
head back towards the congested ferry landing, hoping to relieve
other weary walkers. On my return trip, however, the police state
has stepped up its obstructionist efforts. Barricades now block
my only path towards the shell-shocked and exhausted ferry passengers.
When I try to sneak through, a siren sounds, and a police motorcycle
screams toward me. I am seen as a threat to public safety. An angry
voice scolds me and orders me to turn around and go home.

This
day was dreadful and horrific in numerous ways. First, the government
antagonizes some foreign group of people to the point of fanatical
rage. Then, it fails to protect us against a violent reaction to
its foreign policy, despite spending billions of dollars in tax
money on cruise missiles, spies, and high-tech eavesdropping equipment.
And finally, as innocent people are being killed, it obstructs our
flight to safety, all in the name of safeguarding us from danger.
The bright spots in my day, in contrast, were private, non-violent,
and voluntary.

September
13, 2001

Jim
Sheehan [send him mail]
is a businessman in Manhattan.

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