By Anne Summers
At 3.15pm last Sunday I was standing in a slow-moving line at the Gelateria at Eataly, on the third floor of the World Trade Centre 4 in lower Manhattan, when I saw a supervisor move towards the women dispensing the ice-creams. He spoke quietly but we could hear his words: “We need to evacuate the building.”
Eataly is a popular upmarket Italian establishment that is a providore and homeware store but also serves food in an array of casual-to-formal eateries. This July 4 holiday weekend it was packed with shoppers and diners.
An order to evacuate meant only one thing and we all knew it. There must be a bomb or some similar trigger, yet Eataly’s supervisors were so calm and so unobtrusive that they practically whispered us out the door.
I feared a stampede towards the narrow escalator and called out to my partner to stay close so we would not be separated but the crowd did not panic. Instead, people laid aside their cutlery, put down their shopping baskets and, in what could have been a choreographed movement, headed to the exit with purpose and composure.
On the mezzanine I was slightly unnerved to see camouflage-wearing soldiers standing beside the NYPD, but they too seemed unruffled and that calmed us. Whether by training or instinct, these officers were managing our fear and thereby preventing what could have been a dangerous eruption of panic-driven efforts of self-preservation.
Incredibly for New York, where a taxi pausing to pick up a fare gets blasted with a cacophony of horns and bellows, no one screamed or shouted – even when the crowd was forced to pause because an elderly woman and her companion, unable to walk down the escalator, were blocking the way.
Instead, most people reached for their phones and, as is the way these days, photographed or videoed the entire event.
A few hours earlier, President Donald Trump had tweeted a video of himself seemingly beating up a reporter from CNN, the cable news channel that he excoriates as a source of “fake news” for its reporting on his presidency. It was perhaps the maddest and most inflammatory of his tweets to date (and that’s saying something) and it was chilling to realise that this is the man who would be in charge of calming the nation had there actually been a terrorist attack at the World Trade Centre that day.
I was reassured to see the wisdom of the crowd last Sunday. It gave me some hope to see people exude a calm control that eludes their President. While he rants, they were orderly. He incites violence, they were savvy enough to know how to stop us all from coming to harm.
I don’t know how many people were at Eataly that afternoon. Nor did I know at the time that the Port Authority Trans-Hudson trains to and from New Jersey had been halted and their platforms, hundreds of metres below us, had been evacuated, along with the crowds patronising the ritzy Westfield-owned new Oculus mall above the trains.
We learned later that the sniffer dogs of the NYPD K-9 unit had determined an abandoned backpack on the PATH platform contained “explosive elements” and the evacuation ordered. When it turned out the backpack contained just clothes, within 90 minutes the trains, the mall and the WTC4 establishments were all back in business.
A few nights earlier, we had dined at Eataly and been more than a little discomfited to find ourselves gazing down on the two large reflecting pools, that mark the site of the twin towers that disintegrated in the terrorism attacks on September 11, 2001.
More than 3000 people died in those attacks. Their names are etched on the edges of the reflecting pools in a powerful and emotional commemoration of the horror of that day. The memorial is a place to ponder on the evil of that action. It did not seem right for it to be part of the outlook from an expensive restaurant.
Yet it is a sign that September 11, 2001, is an intrinsic part of the city’s story, absorbed into daily life, making people careful but not cowed. Broadway audiences uncomplainingly submit to scans of handbags just as airline travellers accept full body scans. New York will do all it can to prevent another attack but, as I learnt last Sunday, if there’s a threat, the people know what to do.
It’s a shame we can’t say the same of the US President.
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald 7 July 2017