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Twinge of Relief Cuts Tragedy's Dull Ache


NEW YORK — The crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in a quiet seaside neighborhood will haunt New York for years to come. But in a city still reeling from the terrorist attacks, many residents were visibly relieved Tuesday--even upbeat--that a greater calamity didn't take place.

"I was so happy to hear that it probably wasn't an act of terrorism," said social worker Charles Perry, echoing the feelings of many residents. "This sounds terrible, I know, but there's a new kind of thinking here after Sept. 11. Thank goodness the city wasn't attacked."

Across New York, grief converged with relief the day after Flight 587 nose-dived and crashed, killing all 260 people on board and at least five on the ground. As the early investigation pointed to a mechanical accident, not a criminal act, an odd mixture of sadness and reassuring routine began to surface in the Big Apple.

Department stores were packed with shoppers Tuesday, traffic was heavy in midtown and people went about their business. The day before, many were filled with anxiety when they heard about the crash. They had braced for a rerun of the World Trade Center attacks.

"I looked up in the skies to see if there were any planes heading for buildings," said Sheila McGreevy, an office worker taking a late afternoon stroll on Madison Avenue. "I felt sick to my stomach. And then we hear it was probably an accident, so it's great that we didn't have to worry."

New Yorkers were devastated by the suffering in Belle Harbor and in the city's Dominican community. But the widespread feeling of relief, the sense of having dodged a bullet, was unmistakable.

"We know there were babies on their mothers' laps on that flight, and there's nothing worse than losing a child," said radiology office manager Evelyn Schoop, taking a cigarette break outside her Park Avenue office. "But New Yorkers are getting used to a brand-new way of looking at the world. Now we think a plane crash that is an accident is only an accident."

The co-mingling of grief and relief permeated comments by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki at a morning news briefing. Both men expressed heartfelt sympathies for the victims' families. But they also struck an upbeat tone.

Pataki said that while grieving family members were being helped on one side of the Jacob Javits Convention Center, a bustling international hotel and restaurant convention was filling the rest of the sprawling building. He said it is a "vibrant" and "exciting" time for New York.

Giuliani said "two beautiful communities" were dealing with a loss they didn't deserve. But he added there was no way the latest tragedy would dampen tourists' enthusiasm for visiting New York.

"This is a city that needs to learn how to grieve and how to enjoy ourselves in the same day," he said. "Maybe that's a lesson for life."

Even the local media seemed poised to broaden their focus Tuesday. The crash remained the top story, but there were other items to cover: Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg's appointment of a police commissioner. New developments in Afghanistan. Speculation about Giuliani's job plans. It was as if the city was honoring the dead--but moving on as quickly as it could.

Is this healthy?

"If you ask me, it's kind of bizarre," said Dan Gold, an assistant bank manager striding down 34th Street. "The plane crash was unfortunate, but everybody's saying that we were fortunate."

Mental health professionals scoffed at the notion of a "new normality," saying they have seen such behavior before. When people are traumatized, they noted, there comes a point when many simply can't accept or process new grief. They don't address it and instead get on with their lives.

"People will feel terrible about Flight 587, but many of them are going to put it in a box and remember that their very worst fears didn't come to pass," said Lisa Slater, a psychoanalyst from Wayland, Mass. "It doesn't mean you've learned to deal with the new event, but you contain it."

As she window-shopped at Macy's, Evelyn Friedman was doing a good job of containing. The mother of three children said Flight 587 was "an unbelievably sad thing" but insisted that New York City would go on.

"When I heard the news about the crash, I said: 'Here we go again; what am I going to tell my children?' " she noted. "And then, thank goodness, we were spared the worst. I feel terrible saying this, but we got a break."

Even those closest to Monday's tragedy, the rescue workers who had to pick body parts out of the wreckage and put out fires, seemed to reflect these new feelings. At first they were horrified to think that terrorists had struck again. But then, as tensions eased, the grim work they do for a living seemed to fill many with an odd kind of confidence--and energy.

"My heart goes out to these people," said one New York firefighter in a TV interview. "But if this was an accident, what we're doing here is normal. It's what we're supposed to do. You do your job and keep going."

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