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Clinging to what they can fathom

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By MARLENE SOKOL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 14, 2001


It's real. They're serious.

I shouldn't be behind the wheel.

It's sinking in gradually, sound traveling in slow motion from the radio to my brain. Tampa's public library is intact. The Courtyard Marriott is stubbornly serene. This is a downtown, almost.

Could it be next?

Inside County Center, my destination this Tuesday morning, Gerry Reno is testifying about "access points on Calusa Trace Boulevard." This homeowners' president knows, they all know, that something happened at the World Trade Center.

But they have yet to learn much more, as they are holed up in a County Commission board room discussing a planned medical complex in their neighborhood. St. Joseph's has approval for 132,000-square-feet, but wants to make that 240,000 square feet, plus a nursing home. The matter has been postponed several times and everybody hoped to dispose of it today.

It's not to be. Two planes have hit the World Trade Center, Chairman Pat Frank announces. Now the Pentagon has been hit. "There is some conjecture that this is a terrorism move that's sweeping across the country."

A hush fills the room.

Frank calls a recess "to find out because of our strategic location in Hillsborough County."

Reno stands, suspended with his speaking papers. "We figured, we were here, we might as well get through this," is his explanation for continuing this long.

In the audience Cara Haraschak murmurs, "It makes me want to cry."

They're here to fight a medical complex. How ironic is that? They say the site is too close to their homes, too close to Schwarzkopf Elementary School, too close to where kids ride bikes and mothers push baby strollers.

Now the World Trade Center is toppling to the ground.

"I'm trying to think, who I know who might be traveling today," muses Ken Graves, a lawyer.

I mention that I almost drove off the road when I heard the news. And homeowner Janie Juarez jumps all over my remark.

"See, that's what I'm talking about," she says. If bad news on the radio could cause me to drive dangerously, "What about people who are rushing a loved one to the hospital?"

A homeowner wants to talk about property values. He and his wife worked hard to buy their home. Does that now cease to matter? If so, for how long?

The meeting officially halts at 10 a.m. even though, Frank assures them, "We have no reason to believe we are a target."

I might be wrong, but I sense disappointment among the homeowners.

They don't complain. Not really. And it's not that they aren't deeply horrified. Later Reno will draft a letter to the president and members of Congress, calling for "a full and unrestricted response" to Tuesday's atrocities.

"I believe that any government found to have played a part in the commission of these horrific and inhumane acts has lost its right to a seat at the world table," he will write, "and the international community has a duty, in protecting the collective law-abiding peoples of the civilized world, to remove such a government from power."

But even today -- no, especially today -- Juarez wants to keep talking about pedestrian safety on Calusa Trace Boulevard. "That's really critical to me."

This is a morning when she and her neighbors were supposed to oppose St. Joseph's. They took time off work. Arranged child care. Carpooled here to debate access points and landscape buffers.

That's what we do. We don't cancel flights. We don't evacuate office buildings. We don't take a mental inventory of every second cousin who works in Manhattan. We don't ponder the wave of anti-Semitism that might sweep America -- or the anti-Arab that will hit even harder.

We don't grieve for rescue workers who perished in a staging area as they tried to save lives. We don't imagine those final moments on the hijacked airplanes.

We go downtown. We fight a rezoning.

That's what we do in our regular lives.

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