Standing where a terrorist killed

Standing there, where a terrorist had killed, my first thoughts were selfish. I have family and friends just blocks away, people who’ve lived in the city for years. This wasn’t too close to home. This was home.

Then I thought about Atlanta, my other home. I was raised in New York but I’ve been an Atlantan for the past 20 years, working for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I was in Atlanta when I learned this man had driven a rented pickup truck down West Street, striking bicyclists and pedestrians. He killed eight people and battered a dozen more before crashing into a school bus and being shot by a cop.

When I first heard about it, I did what so many people do: I cringed and then let this ill wind fade into the backdrop that is the new normal.

But now I was standing right there on West Street, looking at eight white crosses planted in the grass beside the bike path. Each was marked with the name of a victim. It felt like a cemetery. Person after person stopped by to pay respects. Cyclists, runners, tourists, all staring down at this makeshift memorial with sad, questioning eyes. 

The place felt like its own little ground zero.

Atlanta didn’t feel that far away. Not on a day like this. That city has faced its own terror attacks. Years ago I used to think that the nation’s prime terror target, by far, was New York City. But then came the Olympic bombing and attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando and Sandy Hook. Now we all seem to be linked in this chain of terrible events, with no end in sight.

How can someone hate so much as to do such a thing? What should we do to head off such attacks?

Hoping for some wisdom, I did what reporters do. I spoke to people stopping there at the corner of West Houston Street and West Street, in front of Pier 40.

Marika Condos was also looking for some connection, some understanding. It’s too easy, she said, to let these terror attacks blend into the background. There’s a real danger when you desensitize yourself like that, said Condos, who is a psychotherapist. You have to stay informed, but not become obsessed and “lose your sanity.”

“It’s profoundly upsetting,” she said, standing amid the mostly silent crowd, gathered as though for some vigil. She pointed to a nearby recreation area. “My kids have soccer practice there three times a week.”

She leavened her sadness with courage and togetherness. Then she said about the smartest thing I’ve heard about such events:

“It builds community, sadly.”

Shelly Mossey wasn’t about to just sit back and accept these tragic days. He biked up to the memorial and started talking to people. He and his family ride here all the time. He knew this memorial could well have been for him or them.

I asked him what he was thinking.

“Sorrow for the world,” he said.

The truck attack marked the deadliest terror assault against New York since 9/11 in 2001, and it dredged up many of the memories from that time. 

I came to New York to cover the aftermath of 9/11. I breathed the dusty air that caked in the back of your throat, and saw the streets covered in papers, memos and reports blown out of the collapsed twin towers. I spoke to a firefighter who went three stories down into the pit and saw the remains of men sitting in barber chairs. I spoke to children who couldn’t understand what happened, even when it was explained to them.

For me, the way people responded to 9/11 has come to define New York and this country. Tough, with a big heart.

Molly Murray saw that same strength on this day. She didn’t see people shying away from this place. If anything, she saw more cyclists and runners.

“That’s the great thing about New Yorkers,” she said. “They’re not going to alter their habits for anything, including terrorism.”

The more time I spent there, the closer I felt to these people. People left all kinds of little tributes: flowers, pictures, baseball hats. Someone left a bottle of water by each cross. A true cyclist’s salute.

Someone left a poem by the cross for Hernan Ferruchi, one of a handful of friends killed while visiting from Argentina. They were celebrating the 30th anniversary of their high school graduation.

Thinking about that, my stomach started to turn.

Miguel Ramos pulled to a stop on his bike. He looked about as fit as a 61-year-old can. He said he rides this path maybe three times a week.

“This is my path, our path,” he said as the lines of traffic whizzed by on West Street. 

But people need keep on with their lives, he said, not be afraid. He framed all that in the language of a cyclist.

“You gotta keep moving,” he said.

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