The Nation

New York's Female Leaders Express Sorrow, Hope

Friday, September 14, 2001

The city's first woman firefighter still working to save lives, the African American Manhattan borough president, the state's U.S. senator with worldwide name recognition are united in expressing not only sadness but determination to rebuild.

Brenda Berkman

"It's enormous," said a weary Brenda Berkman, talking for a bare few minutes on Thursday the first time she was away from the World Trade Center since Tuesday's attack. Around the clock, she has been working with rescue crews digging through the rubble.

Berkman suffered a minor injury when her arm was cut in sifting through the debris, requiring treatment and a tetanus shot. Regardless, after a bit of rest, she will return to the rescue effort.

Berkman's Ladder Company No. 12 in Chelsea suffered devastating losses of firefighters, as did other firehouses in the first division of lower Manhattan because they were the first called to the scene, said Berkman.

"In the first division, a huge number of the companies lost anywhere from one or two firefighters to 13 or 14. A huge number of firefighters are missing--as many as 400--and many I have worked with," said a clearly exhausted Berkman.

Berkman is the first female firefighter in New York City and the second highest-ranking woman in the New York City Fire Department. The department has less than 30 women among its 11,000 firefighters.

The first firehouses to respond suffered the heaviest losses because they were inside the buildings when they collapsed, she explained. She talked about the emotional toll of lost colleagues--one of the four lieutenants in Berkman's company is missing--combined with dangerous and rigorous physical work.

"All of the firefighters express their gratitude for the great concern for them. I want to make sure everyone knows how grateful I am for his and her good wishes. And if people can help in any way, big or small, we really appreciate it," said Berkman. She planned to head back to the former World Trade Center site on Friday morning after a few hours' respite.

C. Virginia Fields, Manhattan borough president

"We're on the ground on this," said Fields, a figure who has been in the background of many news conferences, but is seldom handed the microphone. "I'm as horrified as everyone else. Our effort is to provide as much assistance and support to the residents down in that area. The World Trade Center represents a financial center to the world and New York, but the reality is that there are neighborhoods and communities that live there."

Fields said that thousands of people, especially from the new Battery Park City complex, were evacuated to New Jersey or to stay with relatives.

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"They want to know when they will be able to return, and, of course, they won't be able to return until services are restored. And many want to know about pets that have been left. We have been able to get information to them, arrange to get people back into their apartments and retrieve pets and some things they weren't able to get."

Other residents, many elderly, were not evacuated but do not have services, cannot breathe the air, or do not have food supplies, she said.

"There is a sizable senior population, predominantly women," said Fields. "I was down today passing out masks, facilitating food, water, bread. In one complex of seniors, we are trying to line up a dozen cellular phones so that the seniors can get in touch with their families. Others have asked for grief counseling and emotional support. And we have taken it on to make it happen. They do not see their needs as priorities within the massive scale of things that have to be dealt with, but everything that happened to our country and our city, also happened to their neighborhood."

Concerned about the economic recovery of the area, Fields said, for now, she is concentrating on human needs: "You know about the 'women's thing'--and how we do the work," she said.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. senator, New York

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman to represent New York in the U.S. Senate, delivered an extensive statement on the floor of the Senate after the World Trade Center tragedy.

Prior to the attack, she noted, it was a beautiful day in New York.

"My daughter told me that it was one of those days where the skies were totally clear and there was a breeze and people were starting to line up at the polling places to vote because it was primary day, election day--a continuation of the commitment to democracy and self-government that has set us apart from every society that has ever existed because of the longevity of our democracy and the will of our people to constantly renew ourselves, " Clinton said.

"New Yorkers went from standing in line to vote to standing in line to donate blood in just a few hours. I don't think any of us will get out of our minds the images that we saw on television of the plane going into the first tower, the plane going into the second tower, the plane going into the Pentagon. But there were tens of thousands of our fellow Americans, people that live in New York and New Jersey and Connecticut--people literally from every part of our country and indeed the world--for whom this was not an event that they watched in horror on television, but they lived through and in too many instances did not survive."

Clinton said that the grim task of identifying the missing lay ahead, but that it was imperative to "account for every single person who went to work. That is all they did: they went to work, on a beautiful September day in New York."

She also stood firm that the city should not only recover, but also rebuild. "You know, New York was not an accidental choice for these madmen, these terrorists, and these instruments of evil. They deliberately chose to strike at a city, which is a global city--it is the city of the 21st Century--it epitomizes who we are as Americans. And I know--because I know America--that America will stand behind New York."

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