Those at Towers Margin Elude List of Missing
SEP 17, 2001, New York Times
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE and MIREYA NAVARRO
Most of the people listed as missing in the twin towers disaster were part of the World Trade Center's life as an elite corporate community. Determining who was missing among them after the terrorist attack, however painful, would not be that hard. And the most prominent would be mourned with much eloquence.
But in the self-contained city that the trade center truly was, there were also many people - undocumented immigrant deliverymen and Albanian window washers, Polish maintenance workers and single men and women without close family - who may not appear on formal personnel records or whose absence might simply not register with enough people that someone would come forward to search. And the mourning for the immigrants with families, but without glamorous jobs, would be done in near anonymity.
And so the excruciating effort to fully document the dead that has gone on since last Tuesday, so far only modestly successful, will be all the more difficult when it comes to the universe of people who worked at the trade center's margins or inhabited its huge informal economy.
Part of the culture of the trade center, for example, depended on Mexicans and other immigrants - many of them men supporting families back home - who hustled breakfast orders to corporate offices, carried flowers to secretaries and washed dishes in the concourse restaurants. Estimates of the number of these workers who were in the towers last Tuesday morning range from a few dozen to as many as 10 or 15 times that number, according to a group that has been formed to search and interview survivors.
Some of the lost seem barely to have been known.
Carlos Bravo, a 26-year-old Mexican immigrant, was making pizzas at Akbar's Greenhouse Cafe, on the street level beneath the trade towers when disaster struck, and he escaped. Only a few minutes before, however, he said he saw two food delivery workers with orders for the office workers on the higher floors. Both were immigrants, Mr. Bravo said - one of them here illegally.
All Mr. Bravo knew about them was their first names and a few sparse facts: Humberto was married with a daughter and lived in Queens; Patricio, an Ecuadorean whose girlfriend was pregnant. "I never saw them again," Mr. Bravo said.
Various efforts are under way to document the undocumented - to attach names, faces and perhaps stories to the invisible uncounted. The Polish Consulate in New York, for example, has been trying to find seven people - all Polish citizens - who were working at the trade center doing maintenance work. A spokesman for the consulate said that information from survivors suggests that all seven made it out, but no direct word has been received.
A group called the Tepeyac Association of New York - an umbrella group of 40 Mexican immigrant organizations - has put together a list of 29 Mexicans who are missing. But the group's executive director, Brother Joel Magallan, said he feared the number could be much higher based on survivor's reports. But he admits the numbers are pure speculation - most Mexicans in New York, he said, are undocumented, and many work in the city's cash economy where paperwork is kept to the minimum.
But there are many other immigrants who were caught in the terror of the trade center disaster whose stories have remained mostly untold - people who came to America to escape poverty, repression and war, and who made lives in mostly humble jobs.
The service employees union local that represents about 1,000 maintenance workers at the twin towers has done an intensive phone canvas and found that 28 of its members are missing.
Jan Demczur, an immigrant from Poland who washed windows at the trade center, said his friend, Roko Camaj, adored his job, working on the roof of the north tower to maneuver the machinery that washed the building's 46,300 windows. Mr. Camaj, a 60-year-old ethnic Albanian who immigrated from Yugoslavia, loved working so high up, often telling his children that he felt he could touch the sky.
"I can't imagine Roko's gone," Mr. Demczur said. "He was so happy that he had this job. He said, `Nobody is going to take my job from me. I'm doing to die here.' And he died there."
Many immigrants coveted maintenance jobs at the trade center because the pay was considered excellent for unskilled workers - at least $32,000 a year before overtime.
Raysa Rodriguez, the sister of Esmerlin Salcedo, a 36-year-old security guard from the Dominican Republic, said one of his co-workers told her that Mr. Salcedo went back inside the towers after helping her escape. Mr. Salcedo, who had applied to become a police officer and was taking computer courses, left behind a wife, a 5-year-old daughter, a 4- year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son. "Like every other immigrant, he came for a better life," his sister said. "He achieved a better life."
Alexa Ortiz said her mother, Sonia, who immigrated from Colombia in 1971, was delighted to land a job as a trade center janitor two years later.
"It paid good," she said. "Her English wasn't
good and it was a job where she didn't have to talk much."
Eventually she was promoted to run the freight elevator at Windows on the World, the restaurant near the top of 1 World Trade. "She was so excited working in such a tall building near the sky," said Sonia's son, Victor, a building painter. "She had so much pride that King Kong was made there. She said she met Michael Jackson one day."
Through hard work and frugality, Sonia Ortiz, 56, bought a handsome, brick home in Flushing, where she lived with Alexa. In the dining room, Sonia had Lladró sculptures of fairy tale characters and place mats with angels, and in the living room, she had a gilded mirror and a coffee table made of petrified wood.
Alexa, who works as an assistant in a medical office, said her mother came to New York to escape poverty, after having worked as a seamstress as a child in Colombia. "She loved it here," said Alexa. After the 1993 trade center bombing, Sonia, known for her optimism, dismissed the idea of renewed terrorism, her children said. Colombia, they all agreed, was far more dangerous.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company