NEW YORK - How close did Rachel Florio live to the World Trade Center's towers?
So close that when her husband would call from his office there to say he was working late, and she would tease him that he was really out with the boys, he would flick the lights on and off at her to prove that he was indeed desk-bound.
So close that when she heard the first plane approaching Sept. 11, she dived onto the floor of the apartment with her children, sure that it was about to hit their terrace.
So close that when the jetliner instead slammed into her husband's tower and she ran over to find him, she got there before then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his entourage.
So close, and now too close.
"It will never be the same there ever again," says Florio, whose family is among many that can no longer bear to live next door to the attack site. "I know they say there are no more remains, but to me, there are still souls there."
The memories that drove the Florios away remain raw for her. Of running from the collapsing towers with her two young daughters, telling them to pretend they were in a movie only to have one of them cry: "No, Mommy, it's real! It's Daddy's building!" Of hearing from a friend that her husband, Greg, was OK but not seeing for herself until hours later. And, most of all, of seeing people jumping - she still says "falling" - from the towers, particularly the one she saw last and most clearly, the man with the strawberry blond hair wearing a brown tweed jacket.
Florio knows she will carry what she witnessed that morning forever and wherever she lives - but she can at least control her physical distance from its origin. The family has moved about six miles away to an apartment on the Upper West Side while awaiting the completion of a home being built even farther away, in the suburbs of Westchester County.
To stay or leave
For those who lived closest to the site, whether to stay or go has been a running theme this past year - for some, a serious consideration they eventually acted on; for others, more of a fleeting thought at their lowest moments.
Although the area around the former trade center is largely commercial, it is also home to tens of thousands of residents in communities such as Battery Park City to the west and Tribeca to the north.
What others call Ground Zero is not some cold symbol of American might and capitalism that proved an attractive target to terrorists. It was where residents' kids learned to ride bikes on the plaza between the towers, in the shadows of which they played Little League baseball. It was where they shopped at the Gap and the Duane Reade drugstore in the mall beneath the towers and impressed out-of-town friends by taking them up to the Windows on the World restaurant for drinks.
That is what the terrorists struck - the neighborhood.
"We lost our Borders," says Fred Seeman, a lawyer who has lived in the area for more than 20 years. "If you have little ones, that's where you went."
Seeman, though, is quick to say that losing a Borders bookstore is nothing compared to losing a husband or mother or sibling in the terrorist attacks. He and other neighbors of the former trade center know that they surely are not, as New Yorkers have come to call them, among those who suffered "first degree" losses.
And yet, to be hit so close to home has been unnerving in many ways.
"I sometimes feel bad about telling my story because so many people were affected more than me," says Michael Thaler, a commodities trader who has decided to return to his Battery Park City apartment after a year away. "I was more of the next tier affected by it."
'I want to get back'
It's hard to determine how many have left, stayed, or left and come back. A recent New York Times survey found that occupancy rates in the immediate area of Ground Zero, which dropped about 45 percent after the attacks, are back up - largely because landlords dropped rents to attract new tenants to replace those who left, and government grants became available to those who sign long-term leases to remain in the area.
The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. estimates that 9,300 apartments, condos and co-ops are in the so-called Zone 1, the area immediately around the World Trade Center site - south of Chambers Street and west of Nassau Street, which includes all of Battery Park City and the southern part of Tribeca.
What is clear is that many who have left are families, among those most troubled by lingering questions of air quality and the prospect of having their children navigate around construction sites in the coming years. This summer, the Downtown Little League, which in a normal year can have as many as 600 kids participating, had fewer than 400, and they played on borrowed fields elsewhere. One elementary school near Ground Zero expects about 28 percent fewer students this year because their families have left the area.
Some residents have been forced to leave because their apartments - converted commercial buildings on streets adjacent to the site - were damaged in the attacks. Others have left on their own, moving elsewhere in the city, to the suburbs or to summer homes that they'll live in year-round.
But for those who stayed, having survived the past year - one in which the initial trauma of the attacks was followed by a huge round-the-clock recovery effort - means the worst is over. For them, a year is not just an arbitrary length of time but a signal to move to another phase.
"I've done enough mourning. In most religions, they respect the one year of mourning," says Thaler, who is looking forward to returning to his apartment in November. "It's best that way. If it was best for it to be longer, that's how religions would have made it."
Thaler fled his apartment the morning of Sept. 11 and spent six weeks moving from hotel to hotel with his dog, Chase. Working as he does at the New York Mercantile Exchange, which is part of the World Financial Center in Battery Park City, he thought it would be too much to live and work near Ground Zero. He sublet his apartment and moved to Greenwich Village for some distance.
"Now I want to get back home," he says. "I just want to get back to my regular life."
Battery Park City is inextricably linked to its neighbor to the east - it is built on landfill from the ground dug to construct the World Trade Center. Thaler moved to Gateway Plaza, the first Battery Park residence, in 1988, several years after it was built.
It's a surprisingly non-New York New York neighborhood, tranquil and airy despite its location just across West Street from the trade center site and the rest of the financial district. The glassy buildings front a sweeping stretch of the Hudson River, and its esplanade is favored by bicyclists, stroller-pushing mothers and nannies, and cell-phone-jabbering Rollerbladers. Pleasure boats bob in their docks, and ferries troll the river between the city and New Jersey. All that, and a view of the Statue of Liberty, too.
On a quiet, windswept morning here, it's hard to imagine the chaos of Sept. 11. Thaler had been getting ready for work and wondering why he kept hearing his answering machine taking messages from his mother and siblings asking whether he was OK. He finally picked up the phone midstream through a message - it was one of his brothers, and he told him to look out the window.
He saw a ball of flame shooting from one of the towers. All he could imagine was the tower toppling over onto his apartment building and trapping him in the rubble. He ran outside, where plumes of debris were engulfing the area and turning it pitch black. A snow-like substance soon covered the ground, and, not wanting Chase to walk through whatever that was, he picked up his overweight and overloved 60-pound dog and made his way through a series of horrors: a firefighter seemingly having a heart attack, hysterical people, long lines to phones that soon went down.
They were eventually put on a tugboat and taken across the river to New Jersey, where he went to a friend's home and then spent two days in a hotel in which he basically hid under the covers and watched TV.
The Mercantile Exchange, where he is a natural gas trader, reopened a week later even as the neighborhood remained under heavy guard and many of the streets were blocked off. At one point, Thaler had to go uptown to take a ferry back downtown to reach the exchange.
All the while, like others in the financial field, he was dealing with the loss of colleagues whose seats were near his own at the exchange. One company happened to be having its biannual meeting in one of the towers. Just the other week, medical examiners identified by DNA the remains of the man Thaler considered the nicest person in the exchange. "I'd brought my father in to see the exchange - I was just a clerk then - and he'd said something nice about me to him," Thaler recalls. "I didn't even know it at the time."
Today, the exchange is back to its usual frenetic pace, and yet the losses of Sept. 11 remain just beneath the surface.
"You can't get away from it," Thaler says.
Returning to normality
Still, as time passes, the area is slowly returning to some semblance of normality. Residents and workers are heartened by every advance - the return of the palm trees early last month to the Winter Garden, part of the World Financial Center, brought particular cheer.
Steel and debris from the towers had crashed through the Winter Garden's 10-story glass atrium, leaving its signature palm trees coated in dust. Repairs have progressed to the point that the trees have been replaced and the building is scheduled to reopen this month.
"When my father visits, that's where he and my daughter would go," says Vito Suppa, a Tribeca resident. "They would walk together to the Winter Garden and through to the mall at the World Trade Center."
Suppa, who has lived in Tribeca since 1975, has watched it change from a fading warehouse district where artists and musicians lived in not entirely legal commercial spaces into a chic neighborhood with some of Manhattan's priciest residential real estate and terribly fabulous restaurants, several owned by actor Robert DeNiro.
Still, there are those who have managed to remain in the neighborhood and lead fairly middle-class lives of PTA meetings and soccer games.
"You have the same soccer moms as you do in the suburbs, except instead of going here, here and here in the van, they're in the subway," says Suppa, a musician and carpenter.
Like other early Tribeca residents, he has grown up, left behind the loft he shared with several friends, married and become a parent. Now he's president of the Downtown Little League. For many in the area, the league provided a welcome routine in an otherwise wildly abnormal year.
"It took us three months to locate all the kids, through e-mail, snail mail, however we could find them," Suppa says. "I thought, even during World War II, they had baseball. We had to have it for these kids whose lives had already been otherwise disrupted."
Even families who moved away from the area came back to their old teams and shuttled their children to whatever borrowed field they could find while their park was used to hold equipment for the Ground Zero recovery efforts.
"It was the glue that held the community together," says Seeman, who lives at Battery Park City with his wife, Helene, and their two sons.
Like other families, they lived as nomads for several months, their apartment uninhabitable and their furniture needing to be reupholstered.
It was a surreal experience, both familiar and strange: Seeman remembers getting directions to take his family to a Red Cross emergency facility in Greenwich Village, only to find it was the rec center where his boys played basketball.
"And then we see the guy who had the restaurant in the World Financial Center, the one you'd see every day for lunch, and he was translating for Chinese people," Seeman says. "It was all the same people and places but in this different context."
The past year has been one of uprooting - the younger boy's elementary school classes were shifted elsewhere so that the building could be used as a command post for the Ground Zero recovery efforts, neighbors moved away and there was an anthrax scare at their post office.
The Seemans spent this past summer, as they usually do, in Princeton, N.J., and feared their sons would want to stay permanently. The kids, however, missed New York, and the family returned after Labor Day.
"I think this has been a life experience they've had that a lot of other children haven't, to have no clothes and no home and to see that people helped you," says Helene Seeman, an art curator and archivist.
For Seeman, whose foot was in a cast Sept. 11, the experience was no less valuable: She managed to get her younger son out of his elementary school, arranged for her mother to pick up the other son from the Bronx High School of Science and somehow kept a calm face throughout so as not to further alarm the boys. Her heroics were not unnoticed.
"Some months later, my younger son said, 'Mom, I want to thank you,'" Seeman says, the wonder still fresh in her voice. "'It was important to me that you didn't cry that day.' I think it's important for kids to see that their parents don't go to pieces. They know we lost friends, they knew we were going to funerals, but they saw that we carried on."
Now, they can't imagine living anywhere else in the city.
"This is the only part of town for us," says Fred Seeman, whose law office is on Broadway on the other side of the trade center site.
"Now that we've slept around, in Chelsea, SoHo, the Upper East Side," he says of their wanderings after Sept. 11, "we know."
As the anniversary approaches, they're hoping to reclaim Sept. 11 as what it was before last year - their younger son's birthday. After he missed out on a party last year, they're giving him a quiet one this year.
An 'extreme bond'
For Rachel Florio, who works as a fashion publicist, it's also time to look forward, even as the past remains inescapable. She is angry that her daughters had to go through last year's horrific ordeal but swells with pride at how they handled it.
"They were so mature and so brave," she says, recalling how she ran holding the 9-year-old's hand while carrying the 7-year-old like a football under her other arm. "We now have this extreme bond, and they are each other's best friend. Who cares now if your sister steals your seat at dinner?"
For all the trauma of the past year - she still can break down in tears over a sudden memory; she can't imagine ever getting on an airplane - how positively she feels about the future can be summed up in three words: She is pregnant.
"When I get sad or cry, I feel guilty. My husband wasn't a victim in the towers. I wasn't flying out on one of those planes. I'm not Lisa Beamer and having my third child without my husband," she says, referring to the widow of one of the United Airlines Flight 93 passengers.
And so she finds comfort in the small coincidences and lucky breaks: She is thankful Greg wasn't in his office when the attacks occurred because she knows he would have tried to help others escape and might have been trapped when the building collapsed. She is pleased that they managed to get the last lot in their chosen subdivision to build their home.
And she remembers a bit of mercy in an otherwise hellish day.
Running through the clouds of debris with her daughters, she made it up to Pier 40 at Houston Street but was desperate to get even farther away, to her brother-in-law's apartment on the Upper East Side.
She pounded on the door of the first vehicle she saw and begged, "Take us away from here."
The driver agreed. He let them into his white truck. His name was Angel.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun