September 11, 2002

THREATS AND RESPONSES: THE JITTERS; The Nation Carries On, Jumpy but Still Resolute


It was really nothing. The overhead cable to a downtown streetcar snapped. A loud grinding of metal and the rustling of tree branches occurred. But it was enough to send pedestrians, nerves on edge, scurrying for cover at a nearby office building.

Who could have known for sure?

It was that kind of day here today and across the country. Lots of guessing. Lots of people talking to themselves. Little things seemed like big things and then little things again. People spoke of not allowing terrorists to run their lives, but then suggested it would be foolhardy to take unnecessary risks. Some spoke disdainfully of a nationwide terror alert system that had cried wolf over the past year, but then wondered if this time might be the real thing.

''I am not going to go and hide in my house,'' said Kristine Ferru, a real estate agent in Cary, Ill., a northern suburb of Chicago. ''I feel there is nothing I can do personally except to hope that my government doesn't let us down like it did a year ago.''

Warnings had been issued before, but the announcement today that the federal authorities had raised the nation's terror alert to its second-highest level was tougher to handle for many people.

In part, the reaction was due to the unusualness of the warning: never before had there been a so-called code orange. But perhaps more significant was its timing -- as anniversary memorial events were being planned in cities big and small and as the news media revisited the horror of Sept. 11 with the greatest intensity since the days after the attacks.

''I've spent the last few days becoming comfortably numb: I'm thinking the worst and hoping for the best,'' said Brian Kelly, a salesman from Philadelphia who was boarding a flight to Florida at the airport in Newark. ''Even if nothing happens today, tomorrow, the next day or whenever, you can feel the tension in the air here today.''

In San Francisco, Scott Jensen, an Otis elevator contractor working at the Federal Reserve Bank, said he and his co-workers were regularly reminded of people's unease. When they drag 500-pound weights into skyscrapers to test the elevators, the noise and shaking put entire floors on edge, Mr. Jensen said.

Since Sept. 11, some of his heaviest work has been scheduled for nights and weekends to avoid creating a panic. The code orange only made him more aware of those concerns and of broader security issues. He commutes every day into the city across the Golden Gate Bridge.

''A lot of us ask ourselves what would we do if we were on the bridge and saw some lights from the sky coming at us,'' Mr. Jensen said. ''You also look very differently at a van on the side of the road. Is it broken down, or is it there for some other reason?''

The alert spurred heightened security measures by government and law enforcement officials at the bridge and other high-profile potential targets nationwide. It also set off a wave of jitters among the many people organizing public events for tomorrow. The Salvation Army dug deeper into its ranks to find people to help patrol a memorial service planned for San Francisco's Union Square. Similar efforts to get more eyes and ears at 9/11 observances were under way in other cities.

Joye Storey, who is coordinating the San Francisco event, said she briefly considered canceling it.

''I am praying heavily that everything goes smoothly and safe,'' Ms. Storey said. ''There is that part of me that feels a responsibility to see that nothing happens, but I also know that we have to carry on. We want people to know that they can count on us.''

That determination could be heard in the voices of many people.

Jason Senn of San Clemente, who runs a surfing camp at San Onofre State Park in Southern California, said the code orange had made some people think twice about the nearby nuclear power plant but it did not stop them from going to the beach.

''We teach 400 kids to surf every summer, and if something did happen, well, it's a scary thought,'' Mr. Senn said. ''But I feel pretty safe.''

Perhaps the biggest worries -- and biggest resolve not to be ruled by them -- could be found in New York. At Pennsylvania Station, Barbara Sherman, a retired nurse who lives in Lower Manhattan, put up a fuss after spotting some unattended luggage near the Amtrak ticket counter.

''I was waiting on line to buy an Amtrak ticket for 20 minutes, and all the time I was watching these bags,'' Ms. Sherman said. ''I heard about the threat, so I paid attention.''

Ms. Sherman reported the suspicious luggage and then went ahead and bought a ticket to Boston.

''I'm not going to change what I have to do,'' she said. ''If it's my time, it's my time.''

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Permissions | Privacy Policy