After The Terror, Another Mad Scramble

It was 6 p.m., and listless Red Cross volunteers had filled makeshift steam trays with an array of hot entrees. Their somewhat improbable disaster victims sported three-piece suits and seemed more frustrated than hungry. It had been a very long day at this ad hoc command center in lower Manhattan.

Such was the scene at the World Trade Center, three days after a car bomb tore through five levels of the plaza connecting the two towers, killing at least five people and injuring as many as 1,000. The blast caused damage that, together with moving expenses and lost profits, could cost $1.1 billion, says New York City's comptroller. The likely terrorist attack left some 350 companies and their thousands of employees suddenly officeless--perhaps until April--and scrambling to do business.

AH, BOREDOM. On the first workday after the blast, though, they had little to do but wait. Junior managers and CEOs alike from dozens of companies passed the hours thumbing the numbered index cards that were their only keys back to their offices. Once there, execs had just 30 minutes to collect the computers, software, files, and Rolodexes they needed. Being big didn't get you upstairs any faster. Just like at the corner deli, it was first come, first served.

The wait had at least one positive effect: The widespread panic of Friday had cleared. "Boredom is a great remedy for fear," quipped Ted Beck, an officer with Sumitomo Bank Capital Markets Inc. Beck and nearly 50,000 others were left to the task of contacting their clients, relocating, and rebuilding operations. Quickly.

Small companies were foraging for whatever office space they could find--in lawyers' offices, with friends, even in the offices of competitors. Okasan International America, normally a 10-person brokerage house, was down to one man. "The president is running things from his friend's office on Park Avenue," reported Uchida Toshio, the firm's treasurer, as he paused distractedly beyond a heavily guarded exit checkpoint.

Gao Gui Ming, CEO of Shantra New York, a tiny import-export firm, seemed optimistic about his backup plan. He retreated to his 300-square-foot apartment in Battery Park City, with its bird's-eye view of his offices in the World Trade Center. "All you really need is a phone line, a desk, a computer, and a fax machine," said Ming. Then, his confidence wavered: "Do you know how long the World Trade Center will be closed? I hope to be back in one week."

Many banks and brokerages had adjusted to sudden homelessness without interruption. A few weren't qo lucky. Bond house Cantor Fitzgerald set up temporary headquarters in the Harborside Financial Center in Jersey City, N.J., but 150 employees remained at home "waiting for calls," said Scott M. Webb, a Cantor vice-president. "We're scrambling to get our business going again," he said, rushing off.

He had to hurry. Every minute passed meant more lost business for everyone. The law firm Thacher Proffitt & Wood had lost $150,000 to $200,000 that day in gross billings, said partner Thomas N. Talley. With similar worries, a half-dozen New York Shipping Assn. workers were among the most anxious to reach their offices. "We've got 14,400 pension checks in 30 boxes up there that we've got to pick up," said an employee as he rushed toward the check-in gate. "Otherwise, the longshoremen don't get their money."

SPRING CLEANING. The phones kept ringing, almost miraculously--just like an AT&T commercial. Most customers never knew the difference. NYNEX won praise for rerouting client calls to new offices in a flash. By reprogramming a computer, NYNEX handled over 7,000 requests to redirect lines over the weekend.

Arjay Telecom Inc., a cellular-phone company, played its own small part. "I lost $10,000 between Friday and Saturday afternoon because of this thing," grumbled co-owner Eric Brown. His business was designated an "emergency communications center" by service provider CellularOne, so Brown kept firefighters, police, and others supplied with free batteries--"100 of them at $20 a pop"--and free service.

Meanwhile, clerks at Lynn's Hallmark Card Shop crawled on hands and knees, pursuing some very early spring cleaning. They had to do something. Daily sales at the concourse store, usually $10,000, plummeted to $600. "I hope this ends soon," manager John Torres chuckled nervously. "I've got $35,000 worth of chocolate bunnies coming in for Easter that I've got to sell." By Easter, maybe, things will be back to normal.

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