Jewish World Review Oct. 20, 2003 / 14 Tishrei, 5764

Bernadette Malone

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And who can blame them? | Moments after Wednesday's fatal Staten Island ferry accident, high school students who regularly shuttle across New York Harbor for classes raced toward a friend of mine — a public school teacher they recognized in the ferry terminal, which is adjacent to the stadium of the minor league Staten Island Yankees.

At that very moment, the Red Sox and Yankees were duking out Game 6 at the Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. But terrorism, of all things, had quickly replaced the American League Championship Series as the first thing on these teenagers' minds.

"They bombed the boat!" they cried to my friend. In the 20 or so minutes after the collision, before tugboats could pull the devastated ferry into its proper slip and the accidental nature of the collision became clear, the scars of September 11 were torn open in young kids and the adults who comforted them.

And who can blame them?

Though my hometown Staten Island holds only 5 percent of New York City's population, it was home to 20 percent of the people who died on September 11, according to The New York Times. And like Londoners who remember the bombings of World War II, and Parisians who remember the Nazi occupation, New Yorkers — Staten Islanders especially — were pricked by September 11 in a way that might forever change their character.

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Home to many police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers, Staten Island saw more than its fair share of September 11's carnage. The World Trade Center wreckage was brought to the 3,000-acre Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, where scavenging seagulls helped workers locate the human body parts hidden among the wreckage.

Bystanders at the Staten Island ferry terminal describe a grisly scene that was bad deja vu for them.

Two people were decapitated right in front of other passengers. Another was ripped in half. A woman's legs were shorn off as she screamed. Limbs and blood covered the ground, as they did the streets of lower Manhattan on September 11.

New York City firemen and police rushed to the scene to dig out victims trapped in the wreckage — a scene so familiar from September 11.

One person wondered aloud whether the pilot of the boat had deliberately steered it into a pier to hurt passengers — a thought that could only occur in a post-September 11 mind tortured by fear of suicidal hijackings.

Staten Island is where native New Yorkers — many Yankee fans among them — moved in the 1960s and 1970s to escape the rising violence and crime of Brooklyn and Manhattan. More suburban than New York's other boroughs, it is unofficially regulated by the many firefighters and police officers who live there.

On the rare occasions when the presence of those firefighters and police officers is unfelt, Catholic school nuns and lay teachers step forward in this Italian and Irish enclave of New York. Other New Yorkers call it backward and provincial, but Staten Island is where middle-class parents — desperate to protect their children, yet still remain part of New York City — move.

September 11 ended that dream of sanctuary for Staten Islanders, and they, like other populations who experience war-time atrocity, may take generations to recover.

The ferryboat accident reminded them that even when they are not under attack from Islamic radicals, life's brutalities can be visited upon them without warning or reason. Some harsh existential lessons for a population that thought it could outrun the day-to-day violence familiar to the rest of New York City.

Comment on JWR contributor Bernadette Malone's column by clicking here.


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© 2003, Bernadette Malone