ABOUT NEW YORK
By DAN BARRY
The sun inched across a cloudless sky yesterday, the breath of October rustled trees, and the number of people killed in the World Trade Center disaster dropped by 40. Just like that: 40 fewer souls to imagine rising from the dust; 40 fewer people to include in nightly prayers.
Until now, the number of dead was 2,792. That number, 2,792, had stood firm for more than a year. It was the number recorded in almanacs and history books. It was the number of the names of trade center victims that children uttered at the second-anniversary ceremony, there on the lip of ground zero.
Now strike that number from your mind. Replace it with 2,752.
After what officials call an exhaustive investigation that spanned the world, the city has removed more names from the official tally. The reasons are the same as in the past: finding people once thought dead; duplication; insufficient data; fraud. In many cases, investigators could not prove a supposed victim had ever existed ó a jarring concept, given that some names are embedded in the collective memory.
Remember Paul Vanvelzer and his two sons, Barrett, 4, and Edward, an infant who was once thought to be the disaster's youngest victim? It seems now that the Vanvelzers, reported missing by a California woman claiming to be a relative, may have died without ever having lived.
But what do we do with this information ó this 2,752, down from 2,792? Do we grieve less? Are we happy? What does it mean?
"The question is, does it make it any less tragic?" said Jonathan Greenspun, the commissioner of the Mayor's Community Assistance Unit. "The answer is, no, it doesn't."
The change in the number is more than a mere adjustment in a dispassionate tally. It reflects the singular horror of the trade center collapse, so thorough in its destruction that the exact number of victims remains elusive more than two years later. It reflects the worst in human nature: that many people, seeing opportunity in disaster, reported fictitious deaths in hopes of collecting benefits.
But it also reflects the best, city officials say, as personified by investigators so intent on determining the true and sacred number of the dead that they properly took their time, even if it meant that a few fraudulent names, or the names of the living, were sprinkled among those of the many dead. Better that, they reasoned, than to exclude the name of one true victim.
More than a few of these 40 cases centered on missing persons' reports filed by people who lived overseas. Bryan X. Grimaldi, the general counsel for the New York City Commission for the United Nations, offered an example of the nettlesome problems faced by investigators: a woman in Nigeria does not hear from her son in the United States for five years; she learns of the Sept. 11 attacks and reports him missing; then investigators cannot find the woman.
"What do you do?" Mr. Grimaldi asked. "What do you do with the name?"
Perhaps in another case, in another tragedy, the matter would have been dropped. But in the case of Sept. 11, Mr. Grimaldi said, "we have really exhausted all efforts, and by extraordinary means."
"We took it as far as we could go," he added.
The mission to specify the number of victims has been a necessary one: partly for history, partly for the distribution of death benefits ó and partly to satisfy a communal desire for a number whose exactness might bring some comprehension to the incomprehensible. But that number, and whatever finality it would bring, has been elusive.
In the first days after the terrorist attack, the city estimated that more than 6,300 people had been killed. That number quickly dropped, sometimes by the hundreds, as officials winnowed out duplications and false reports. In acknowledgment of the matter's importance, the city created a task force called the Reported Missing Committee, which included representatives from several city agencies, including the Police Department, the medical examiner's office and the city's Commission for the United Nations.
All the while, the intense emotion attached to numbers was palpable. Chief Charles V. Campisi, head of the Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau, once predicted, "I think it will be less than 5,000, but only by the grace of God." And Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani once dismissed efforts by reporters to determine an exact number as a "macabre" endeavor.
The number kept dropping ó to about 4,500, and then to about 3,900. Along the way the Sept. 11 attacks lost the awful distinction of being the deadliest day in American history. That was reserved for the Battle of Antietam, at which at least 3,650 Civil War soldiers were killed and thousands more wounded on a single day.
Down to 3,300, and then, by the first anniversary, to 2,801. Soon the number dropped again, to 2,792, where it remained until this week.
The city will retain its records on the 40 names dropped from the list, just in case new evidence develops. But with only three more open cases, officials think that they are close to determining a final number of trade center dead ó somewhere, it seems, between 2,749 and 2,752.
How should that make us feel? The fewer the better, perhaps; the fewer the better.
The commission investigating the government's failures before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is in danger of becoming a study in recalcitrance by the Bush administration. The independent commission's mandate is to supply a definitive account of the government's handling of the terrorist plot that killed almost 3,000 people. But the White House continues to fence with requests for classified documents crucial to the inquiry.
The commission chairman, former Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey, a Republican, is threatening to subpoena the administration for documents that officials should forthrightly turn over. Among the key questions is the nature of an intelligence report to President Bush a month before the attacks ó only sketchily confirmed thus far by the White House ó that Al Qaeda might try to hijack passenger airplanes.
The commission is up to the task of scrutinizing the failures of intelligence and other government agencies, and classified secrets can be adequately safeguarded. Congress should prepare to extend the commission's 18-month timetable beyond next May, the deadline.
How can an unstinting investigation of the truth of Sept. 11 not be of paramount concern to any official sworn to protect the public? The approaching presidential election makes the administration's evasions even more suspect. Failure to document and face the truth will only feed conspiracy theories and undermine the nation's chances of weathering future threats.
By DAVID W. DUNLAP
After many months of playing a backstage role in planning the new World Trade Center, the Bloomberg administration stepped forward yesterday and declared that the master plan would have to include far more streetfront retail space and one more full-fledged street than it now calls for.
"The site must have a retail district that will be a regional destination while being respectful of the memorial," Deputy Mayor Daniel L. Doctoroff said in a letter to state officials that was released by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's press office. "In that district, people will find an exciting on-the-street shopping experience and unique anchor stores that do not exist elsewhere ó prompting them to spend time throughout Lower Manhattan."
City Hall wants almost two-thirds more ground-level retail space ó nearly 187,000 square feet ó than is now shown in the plan, Mr. Doctoroff wrote. It wants Cortlandt Street restored as a thoroughfare between Church and Greenwich Streets, which would require the elimination of a concourse planned between Liberty Street and the future PATH terminal, parallel to Church Street.
Tomorrow, Gov. George E. Pataki is to give a speech on the future of Lower Manhattan. So the timing of the release of an Oct. 17 letter from Mr. Doctoroff, the deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, seemed intended as a reassertion of the city's role in planning the site.
But Mr. Doctoroff said in a telephone interview that the timing was coincidental. The point of the letter, he said, was to "crystallize in written form where we think we have to go from here."
"The key thing that hasn't been addressed in detail ó and it needs to be ó is how this plan integrates with the rest of Lower Manhattan," Mr. Doctoroff said. "It's time to begin calling the question and reaching final conclusions about the issue of how people experience the plan on the streets."
The 16-point letter was sent to Joseph J. Seymour, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the trade center site. A copy went to Kevin M. Rampe, the president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which is planning the site with the Port Authority.
On Sept. 17, the authority and the development corporation presented a "refined" version of the plan by Studio Daniel Libeskind, which they had adopted in broad outline in February.
It divides the old trade center superblock into four unequal quadrants along Greenwich and Fulton Streets. The memorial would occupy much of the southwest quarter, where the twin towers stood. The tallest new building, the Freedom Tower, would be in the northwest quarter. More office towers and a new PATH terminal would run along Church Street, on the eastern half of the site.
None of the points raised by Mr. Doctoroff were rejected out of hand yesterday by state officials, though it is not clear if the city's conditions, taken together, would yield a substantively different plan.
"The letter raises some important points and the Port Authority looks forward to continuing our positive discussions with the city," said Greg Trevor, a spokesman for the authority.
Andrew Winters, the vice president of the development corporation and its director of planning, design and development, said: "The refined plan did not stop evolving on the day we released it. We're going to continue to strive to improve it every day throughout the process."
Even as the master plan is changing, so is the design of the Freedom Tower. An impasse last week between Mr. Libeskind and David M. Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architects for the developer, Larry A. Silverstein, threatened to disrupt what will be a very tight construction schedule.
At a meeting with both architects yesterday, Mr. Silverstein underscored the urgency of arriving at a collaborative ó and practical ó design for the tower, one that would hew to a number of principles laid out by Mr. Libeskind, according to an executive who attended.
The developer extracted from both architects a renewed commitment to work in partnership on the project.
Mr. Doctoroff said little in his letter about the proposed 1,776-foot tower. Instead, he addressed the future of streets, sidewalks, shopping and public spaces. He proposed third-floor "sky lobbies" in the office towers along Church Street, to free up large blocks of space for retailers.
He commended the decision to expand the development site to include two blocks on the south side of Liberty Street, but he urged state officials to work with the city in devising a strategy for acquiring those properties soon.
Acknowledging that the plan will take years to build, he wrote: "The first phase must leave no voids on any of the site's parcels. There should be contiguous retail along the street walls of the site and these should accommodate a later phase when commercial towers can be built."
He also said that "no plan can be approved without detailed estimates of how much it will cost, who will pay for its components, and when each component will be built."
Madelyn Wils, the chairwoman of the Lower Manhattan community board, said, "The Port Authority should not just consult with the city, but be open to suggestions about how it's going to affect life outside the 16-plus acres."