Wednesday, September 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Survivors leave old lives for new jobs, new homes

Newhouse News Service

For the parents of children in the day-care center at 5 World Trade Center, Sept. 11 was a horror from which they are still reeling.

But while the children remember the day vividly, they don't seem haunted by it.

Linda Gaccione, a Secaucus, N.J., mother who wandered the Manhattan streets for seven hours in search of her two children, returned to work while her hands were still shaking, only to be laid off in a corporate merger five months later. She had classic survivor's guilt, rendering her unable to eat, and still has nightmares about an attacking airplane.

Allen and Erin Berman, whose daughter Kiera was evacuated that day, both quit their Manhattan jobs and left Hoboken, N.J., for a new life elsewhere in the state. Their long-range plans are up in the air; what counts is now. "It gets back to: What are your basics? We're together. We're happy. Let's just be happy together," Allen said.

Charlene Melville, the day-care director lauded as a hero for doing everything right in response to the attack, has left the field, probably for good. In the months after the attack, she realized two things: She no longer wants that life-and-death responsibility for other people's children, and she was ignoring her true calling.

While her close-knit staff came through for her that day, she doubts she could ever establish a similar trust with new, untested employees. "Even if they're adequately trained, I wouldn't be able to gauge their reaction in an emergency. I wouldn't be able to trust their judgment," she said.

She now attends arts-in-education graduate classes and is working on illustrations for two children's books. That creative urge helped her through this long, hard year. "I believe it was my therapy," she said.

For her, as for the others, Sept. 11 provided the gift of clarity. "I see a lot of black and white now," she said. "Less gray."

In the desert of despair that was Sept. 11, the saga of Children's Discovery Center was a little oasis of good news.

All 31 children were shepherded to safety. Unlike Oklahoma City, where more than 10 percent of the victims were children, no child died inside the World Trade Center.

That was because teachers and staff members reacted to the first attack with lightning speed, scooping up babies by the armload and leading confused toddlers hand-in-hand through the chaos. Once everyone was outside, Melville commandeered strangers to re-enter the center and search the closets for cowering children.

As the group waited by City Hall for parents to show up, teachers stifled their own terror and led the children in cheerful songs.

From the children's perspective, then, the day was sort of a long, dusty, noisy fire drill.

The children's teachers are gone, some in new jobs, some not. Their little playmates are scattered as well.

And the parents?

Gaccione became obsessed with news reports, worrying about the fate of 22 missing co-workers from her job at Fuji Bank. Every morning she'd read the paper, looking at the lineup of dead people to see whom she'd recognize.

The obsession continued until 3-year-old Amanda laid down the law. The little girl literally closed the newspaper her mother was reading and said, "I don't want you to look at these faces anymore, because every time you see them, you cry."

A counselor told Linda that her daughter's recollections of Sept. 11 — particularly the strong emotions — will be retained far longer than conventional childhood memories.

For the Bermans, Sept. 11 triggered drastic changes.

Allen had been on a cigarette break from his job in the north tower at the time of the attack but couldn't reach the day-care center until it had been evacuated. Erin, who worked in midtown, spent several hours trying to find her husband and daughter.

It was Kiera who dictated an account of her escape:

"Glass fell down. Garbage, a lot of garbage, one hundred garbage fell down on the street. ... I heard a crack. One building cracked and fell down. We ran and ran. ... It was a very bad thing."

In the aftermath of that lucky escape, Allen desperately wanted his family out of New York. He felt the city would continue to be a target. He quit his job in November and urged Erin to quit hers as well.

But they also wanted to give Kiera time to settle in to her new preschool in Hoboken, N.J. Mom quit her job in April, and soon after they acted on long-range plans to move to Central Jersey.

Erin is adjusting to being a full-time stay-at-home mom, while Allen spends his days gutting the small ranch house that will become their new home. He might take a real-estate course; she might pick up some part-time work, eventually.

But right now they spend their days marveling at their good luck.

"It could've been so different for us," Allen says somberly.


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