In the midst of the attack

DeWayne Bartels

Editor’s note: This is a story reprinted from 10 years ago. It was first published in the Peoria Times-Observer.

As Greg Gomez walked down the streets of Manhattan, he saw a city that was returning to normal, but still not quite the same, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

As Gomez, a 25-year-old law student and 1994 graduate of Richwoods?High School, walked in the cold rain that fell, he gave an interview via his cellphone.

He was walking to his apartment for the first time since the World Trade Center twin towers came tumbling down. His apartment is located in what had been the cordoned-off rescue zone.

“I just feel scared and I feel things have got to change in the world so this doesn’t happen again,” Gomez said. “I was sleeping when it happened. I was awakened by someone screaming, ‘The tower is on fire.’ I didn’t know they meant the World Trade towers. I thought they were talking about an apartment building.

“I turned on the television and saw the second building had been hit. I saw the fire. Then we heard it was two planes. I knew then it was an attack, that terrorists had attacked. Living in New?York, you know you could be attacked. I just watched. The towers fell and there was mayhem.

“Right now, it’s kind of odd ... It seems to be back to normal. There’s cars and trucks and busses. People are on the streets. But, there’s an eerie feeling. A lot of people are holding American flags, which is very rare. You never see that. All over the street posts there are flyers for missing people. New?York City is back and alive, but it’s a different feeling.”

Sense of security gone

Two other New?Yorkers — transplanted Peorian Marty Wombacher and Charlotte Sandberg, daughter-in-law of Peoria councilman Gary Sandberg —  said their lives have been changed forever by the terrorist attack on Sept. 11.

Wombacher is a well-known funny man in central Illinois. He was the publisher of the magazine “POP” here before moving to lower Manhattan to pursue publishing a magazine there.

Wombacher, on the phone, was anything but humorous. Though not somber, he was not his usual zany self. Wombacher lives on 16th Street. The authorities had restricted access below 14th Street. From Wombacher’s apartment, the twin towers of the World Trade?Center were visible.

“It’s been replaced by this big, brown cloud. Last night, it was like a big wake here.”

Wombacher said a co-worker of his heard the news and went straight to a bar.

“He started drinking because he figured his dad was dead. Fortunately, his dad made it out alive,”?Wombacher said.

The only places left open near his apartment, Wombacher said, were bars. They were crowded with people watching TV.

“No one was talking. People have put work to the side,” he said. “I was supposed to work Tuesday night ... I walked down to the scene, it was like walking into ‘Apocalypse?Now.’ Everything was covered in white. I just completely forgot about work. I never made it in.”

Wombacher said his sense of humor is intact, but muted.

“There’s nothing funny about this, but my sense of humor is still there,” he said.

What is not intact is his sense of security.

“The building I live in is close to the subway,” he said. “The building shakes every once in a while. I was asleep and the building started shaking. I thought, ‘Are we being bombed now?’ I turned on the TV and everything was OK. But, maybe it’s good I’m scared like that. I’m starting to live every day like it’s my last.”

‘Outside it is bizarre’

Life at ground zero in New?York City was startling for Charlotte Sandberg as well. She provided her thoughts on the events that unfolded last week in an email to family members on Sept. 11.

“I am about 1 1/2 miles from where the World Trade Center used to stand, so I am not in danger,” Sandberg said. “It’s now 1:20 p.m., the first plane hit the building at 8:45 a.m., so it’s a few hours into it now. This is my experience of it:

“The first I knew was when my boss, Mr. Mori’s, grown daughter called in a panic at just after 9 this morning ... I was home alone. All she told me was that two planes had hit the World Trade Center and I should turn the TV on. Once the TV was on, I couldn’t believe it. I rushed to the south-facing window of the apartment and could see the plume of smoke in the distance.”

Sandberg said she WAS glued to the TV, like most of?America.

“Our phones were ringing off the hooks with all the people calling to check if we were all OK. I tried to call out, but couldn’t. All the mobile and satellite phone antennas were on the top of the World Trade Center, so communication is down. We can call within Manhattan, but no further.”

She said the only reliable form of communication was email. Sandberg said it did not take authorities long to seal off Manhattan.

“Once we heard that we were essentially sealed in Manhattan, we went straight to the supermarket to stock up, where, of course, it was bedlam,”?Sandberg said. We managed to get plenty of supplies, because there will be no deliveries into New York City for some time.

“Anyway, I am still trying to reach all my friends. I know some people who work there, or near there, and I have to assume I know at least one person who is now dead. Everyone in New York must know at least one person ... It’s all just a shock and very scary. I guess we are at war now, too. I’ve been crying in front of the TV all morning, along with practically everyone in New York City ... We are not drinking the tap water, just in case there is more terrorism going on. It’s a bit scary.”

As night fell, Sandberg said she felt very alone and suddenly lacked the feeling of security that Americans usually feel.

“Things like this really make me think how sudden and unexpected death can be,”?Sandberg said. “Living in New York City suddenly feels a lot more insecure than it did yesterday, and I realize I’m very far from my family. It’s dark and strangely quiet outside tonight, and I think tomorrow is going to be a tough day, because we will all wake up and realize this wasn’t a bad dream.”