A Painful Return to Lower Manhattan

Companies and workers are filtering back to the Ground Zero area, unable to leave the trauma behind

In just a few weeks, workers at American Express, Deutsche Bank, and The Wall Street Journal plan to pack up and move out of their temporary, cheek-to-jowl outposts in such places as New Jersey, Soho, and Connecticut. They'll be returning to the offices they fled on September 11.

Many who scarcely gave the neighborhood a second thought before September 11 will have front-row seats on the gaping, 16-acre hole where the World Trade Center once stood. Unnerving as that prospect is, e-mail has been flying with the news that an independent investigator is accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of covering up still-potent air-quality dangers near the site -- a charge the EPA denies.

Six months after the terrorist attacks, public-health concerns aren't the only ones that plague Ground Zero employees. While workers across the country who were acutely fearful after September 11 of being in skyscrapers, flying, or even opening a letter are bouncing back, many of the 128,000 employees who fled from Ground Zero still are struggling to recapture a semblance of pre-attack normalcy.


  Nowhere is this more acute than at the Port Authority, which lost 74 employees in the collapse of the WTC and has no plans to return. On that day, workers on the 82nd floor of the North Tower panicked as they saw the first plane head straight for them, only to nose upward in the final seconds, exploding into the floors directly above. Employees -- including a secretary who suffered burns on 75% of her body -- choked and gagged as they scrambled down pitch-black stairwells that swayed as the building heaved and groaned.

Today, in the Authority's temporary offices on Manhattan's Park Avenue, the mood darkens again when the news arrives that a co-worker's remains have been found. Some people are still too frightened to travel through tunnels to return to work. "We're not even in a process of healing yet," says Port Authority architect Yvonne Noradunghian. "We're still suffering."

Equally grim scenarios are playing out at companies across the city. Keith Mullin, CEO of New York outplacement firm Mullin & Associates, has been consulting for downtown financial-service firms about clashes with new hires. He notes that many survivors are resentful of the people who replaced their dead friends. "They're mad because he's gone and you're there," says Mullins. "They take it out on these people without even realizing it."

The aftermath of Oklahoma City provides clues about risks

Indeed, experts caution that September 11's workplace survivors are at risk of becoming the forgotten victims. Understandably, much attention has been paid to the emotional trauma and health effects suffered by the rescue workers. The New York Police Dept. has mandated that all officers undergo mental-health counseling, and 300 firefighters are on medical leave or desk duty due to inhaling the toxic air at the site. But the other Ground Zero workers are at danger too, in part because they have no roadmap for their grieving.


  "We haven't even begun to see what these people are going to need in terms of treatment from this traumatic event," says Mary Ann Sessler, director of recovery services at the Caron Foundation who has counseled survivors from Deutsche Bank. "That's why companies have to keep on top of it. There are a lot of unforeseen dangers here."

Based on a myriad of studies done after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, psychological experts estimate that as many as half of the employees who fled the scene on September 11 are likely to experience some long-term emotional impact. Even more worrisome is that an estimated 25 of the 182 Oklahoma City survivors have attempted suicide since. Six succeeded, including one man who buzzed his single-engine Cessna over the empty hole where the federal Murrah building once stood and then crashed it into a nearby field.

"Seven years later, the bombing is still having an effect on employees," says Kevin McNeeley, a director of Oklahoma City's Housing and Redevelopment Office. "The recovery process isn't six months long or a year long. This is a life-altering event."


  The six-month mark is especially important because it typically takes that long for symptoms of serious aftereffects to emerge. Particularly vulnerable, says Sessler, are the employees who lost co-workers and witnessed firsthand the surreal scenes of sidewalks strewn with body parts and people waving for help as they hung -- and then jumped -- from an inferno 100 stories high. The longer-term emotional aftershocks can include depression, anxiety, panic attacks, survivor guilt, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We went into what we thought was a very safe job, and we were almost killed," says one Morgan Stanley marketing executive who's in counseling. For Betsy Silva, vice-president for global diversity and worklife at American Express, the issue has been survivor guilt. "If I would have stayed, I wonder, could I have helped just one," she says. "This isn't anything a company can heal for me."

As companies move back, the difficulties will only intensify

Nevertheless, many companies are trying. Workers' emotional recovery is such a concern for Ground Zero businesses that most continue to offer free counseling as well as educational seminars to teach managers how to spot troubling behavior. At Marsh McLennan, which lost 300 people, the frequency of group counseling sessions was recently increased from twice a month to weekly. American Express is holding sessions where employees can direct all their questions about the impending move to security and air-quality experts.


 At Pearson subsidiary FT Knowledge Financial Learning, CEO Mark Malcomson, whose 65 employees worked on the 18th floor of the South Tower, continues to prod his underlings to seek out psychological counseling. "I was on the elevator recently, and this woman just burst into tears," says Pearson, who moved his staff to midtown. "I spent an hour with her in the conference room. I'm not trained in this, and I'm often playing it by ear. So I wonder -- am I doing the right thing?"

As companies reoccupy their old offices, they can expect the difficulties to intensify. Merrill Lynch & Co. was the first large organization to begin moving back, in late October. To pull that off, the company had to go into the transportation and catering businesses, providing shuttle buses and mini-restaurants, since subway and train stops were destroyed and nearby food courts are still ghost towns. Then there was the task of schooling MBAs in skills normally associated with MDs.

"Managers running trading desks and banking operations were not trained in post-traumatic-stress disorder," says Terry Kassel, Merrill's senior vice-president for global human resources, whose office overlooks Ground Zero. To help soothe nerves, Kassel hired chamber musicians and offers free popcorn and coffee.


  Physical security also remains an important issue. The company continues to test for indoor air quality and it X-rays every handbag that comes into the building. Fire doors have been painted a glaring red so they can't be missed.

Even so, some moments reveal how such steps don't always go far enough. On low-cloud-cover days, when LaGuardia Airport-bound passenger jets veer eerily close to Merrill's headquarters, some still feel a surge of September 11's fear. "I'll be in meetings, and the entire thing will just stop," says Tom Milligan, Merrill's director of employee communications. The workers can't help but rush to the windows to look out -- just to make sure.

By Michelle Conlin in New York

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.