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A Neighborhood Mourns

An excerpt from "What We Saw" by CBS News, published by Simon & Schuster. Bill Geist is a CBS News correspondent.

Ridgewood, New Jersey, is a small community of old homes, old trees, old values. It's where I live. From here you can get a spectacular view of New York's skyline, seventeen miles away.

It's a convenient commute to New York's downtown financial district, and early every morning my drowsy friends and neighbors grab coffee and bagels by the old, tiled-roof station and board trains for Wall Street, racing back home in the evening for family dinners, school plays, and soccer games.

On a sunny Tuesday in September, many did not come home. Twelve Ridgewood residents and many more from adjacent neighborhoods in towns that border ours were missing in the World Trade Center wreckage. Dozens more local families lost loved ones. Hundreds more narrowly escaped with their lives. Our town, our world, was shocked and transformed.

When you see little knots of people and parked cars in our town, it's always for a happy occasion -- a backyard barbecue or a child's birthday party -- but those clusters turned to somber gatherings of friends and neighbors who brought food and solace to the suffering, trying to shoulder some of the grief.

Flags flew at half-mast, and they flew everywhere. "The View," as it's known, the scenic vista of Manhattan that's normally a place of beauty and romance, became a memorial, its rock wall bedecked with flowers, candles, flags, and messages.

In our little park at the center of town, where teenagers skateboard and children line up in December to visit Santa, candlelight vigils were held. Our local newspaper, which normally carries front-page headlines about delightfully innocuous non-events, now reported hard news on the local dead. Our places of worship kept their doors open at all hours, and people came to pray and cry quietly.

Everyone in town desperately wanted to do something, anything, to help. At dawn each day, a team of local firefighters went to the World Trade Center site to aid in the recovery efforts. Our hospital geared up to care for an influx of injured, but sadly there weren't any. At the library an emergency-counseling center was set up, staffed with volunteer counselors. There were long lines at the local blood bank. Children sold lemonade from curbside card tables for the cause.

The local Red Cross office was abuzz. Volunteers sorted a small mountain of donated items and loaded them on supply trucks bound for rescue workers in the city. Others answered phones, as thousands of calls came in offering money, goods, and manual labor. People signed up for disaster relief lessons held in classrooms that were standing-room-only.

"People feel such an intense overwhelming need to do something," said Susan, who was working in the Red Cross office, answering one call after another. "They want to be there. They want to try and help find somebody. They want to pull away the concrete and glass and they don't ask, 'Is it risky?'"

"The worst in the human experience has brought out the most glorious in the human spirit," said Reverend Tom Marsden, pastor of a local church. "In their numbness and pain, people have reached out."

On the first weekend after the tragedy, the full schedule of football and soccer games and such were all canceled, along with the big street fair, the village employees' picnic, and an outdoor concert. Instead there were more candlelight vigils and prayer services. There were still commuter cars parked at the train station that Tuesday morning that had not been picked up.

The Saturday before September 11, I had a beer at an afternoon porch party with my friend Jon Vandevender. Jon went to work that Tuesday on his usual early train headed for his office on the ninety-second floor of the North Tower (Tower 1) of the World Trade Center. During the attacks, he talked to his wife, Annie, and their son, Jonny, on the phone a few times. Annie's sister called me to ask if I knew someone to call who might know a back way out for Jon. Minutes later, the building collapsed.

Friends and neighbors came by their house in droves to do what they could to comfort Annie, and their three children, Jonny, fourteen, Janey, nine, and Molly, five, as well as Jon's mother and brother. Janey tried for days to reach her father on his cell phone, but Annie told her children that their father was probably not coming home.

Julie Sztjenberg called me and my wife to say her mother, Gina, had been working in the World Trade Center and was gone. They had been our next-door neighbors. My kids grew up with theirs. Gina rode to work every morning with her husband, Mike, who also worked in the financial district. The two were inseparable, having grown up together in Poland, and when their families moved to New York they found each other, married, and made a life together.

Jon's body was found, one of the few. It is a measure of the magnitude of this tragedy that Annie said she considered herself "lucky." His memorial service was the first in a long fall season of them in our community, and began in a most unconventional fashion with the playing of Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road," Jon's favorite song. In the days ahead there would be lots of such unorthodox funeral music wafting from church windows. All of the victims died young.

They speak of the untold number of lives touched in this overwhelming catastrophe that killed thousands. And just look. At Jon's service a thousand people -- from the local pizza man, to the golf pro, to kids Jon coached, to his neighbors, and college friends -- packed the church. Hundreds more stood outside and watched the service on a screen set up in the parking lot.

Gina and Mike were not particularly active in the community, yet about a thousand people came for her service, as surprised attendants at the temple set up folding chairs as fast as they could.

Allison Sharkey is a friend of ours, a young woman who recently married and became pregnant. She was also working in the World Trade Center that day. She and a group of her colleagues found a back stairwell somehow and escaped. She had a baby boy in the spring and gave him the middle name of a co-worker who did not make it out alive.

To this tranquil town that has always provided us refuge from the pressure, pandemonium, and problems of the outside world, monstrous evil came halfway round the world to set upon New York and reach with deadly tentacles through the tunnel and up the railway tracks. Ridgewood, and America, which had never been the target of foreign attacks, would never be the same.

It left untold misery among the survivors, who asked how this could happen and why. Parishioners packed our local churches and synagogues seeking answers to some very tough questions.

When Annie told Molly that God had pulled her father up to heaven from this massive disaster, five-year-old Molly asked, "Does God have enough hands?"

NEXT >>> Scott Pelley: One Miracle

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