E-mails publicizing a nighttime candlelight vigil for the Friday night after the attack had been sweeping the Internet the last two days. The e-mail simply asked that people light a candle at 7 p.m. to honor the victims of the World Trade Center attack.
I left my apartment shortly after 7 to join the vigil. As I began walking around the block, I felt nervous and hesitant. I was alone, the trauma from the event weighed heavily on me, and a small part of me thought that New Yorkers, even in the worst of times, would greet something like this with skepticism.
The lights of candles flickered everywhere. Groups of people, candles in hand, huddled on street corners and in front of apartment buildings. Children sat with their parents on the doorsteps of walk-ups. Patrons of sidewalk cafes momentarily broke off conversations, holding up the decorative candles on their tables.
I was standing in front of my apartment building on 85th and Columbus when a woman passed by and mentioned that firefighters had just returned and that people were gathering at the firehouse a couple blocks away.
I walked to the station Engine Company #74 on 83rd between Columbus and Amsterdam. A fire truck was parked in the center of the street with its lights flashing. Several hundred people huddled near the open garage where a few firemen received the crowd.
Engine Company #74 had lost one of its men, Ruben "Buddy" Correa. Its sister company, Ladder Company #25 on 77th Street, lost seven.
I didn't really know what to expect of the gathering. I thought the neighborhood residents would applaud the returning firemen or shower them with hugs and warm, gracious affection. But nothing like that happened. On this night, illuminated by hundreds of candles under a darkening sky, the community stood outside the firehouse solemnly, immovably, in a quiet, protective tribute to these men.
And the neighbors kept coming. Quite suddenly this old firehouse on 83rd Street an institution that on any other day, in any other week, blended into the streetscape became the emotional outlet for the community. Currents of anger and vulnerability, confusion, and sorrow swept through the crowd.
As I let myself experience this, my emotions joined with the community's, and something happened the hesitations I had had only an hour earlier, softly faded away.
I've wandered by the firehouse several times since then I feel drawn there; it's hard to explain. Six days after the candlelight vigil, I walk down to Ladder Company #25 on 77th Street. Volunteers tend the dozens of bouquets of flowers that overflow the sidewalk in front of the station. I start to make small talk with a fireman. A few sentences into our conversation he says, "We're giving out free hugs today," and without hesitation gives me a big, warm embrace.
Chad Cooper is a St. Louisan who recently moved to New York City. His office tower was across the street from the South Tower of the World Trade Center.