Ground Zero Comfort Blossoms to Marriage
N E W Y O R K, May 6 — It all started with a Christmas Day massage at Ground Zero.
Now, Dawna LoPiccolo, who soothed exhausted firefighter John Mraz amid the debris of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, is planning their wedding.
"I met John in a 20-by-12 wood shack at Ground Zero. He was the last man I massaged that day," said LoPiccolo, a massage therapist who had volunteered to help rescue workers after the attacks.
The single mother of a 2-year-old girl and Mraz, the widowed father of a 7-year-old boy, want to exchange vows under the cross-shaped metal beams pulled from the debris.
After volunteering her massages for months wherever they were needed in the devastated city, she asked to go to Ground Zero again in December.
"I was driven. I said, 'I want to go back to Ground Zero on Christmas.' Something kept pulling me," she said.
As LoPiccolo walked past the debris on Christmas Day, she saw Mraz "sitting there, taking a break from raking through the rubble," she remembers.
Having lost 25 firefighter friends, he was in a lineup of rescue workers waiting for a massage. "It was cold, and I rubbed his shoulders, his hands. I said, 'Don't worry, sweetie.'"
Then, before returning to work, "he gave me this hug that knocked my socks off!"
He scribbled on her hardhat, "It was worth the wait," and signed it "John, Engine 248."
The 42-year-old firefighter, who lost his wife of 19 years last May, said he "wasn't out looking for anybody." But he couldn't forget the woman who had warmed his aching muscles on that winter day.
Three days later, he phoned another firefighter who knew LoPiccolo. Within 10 minutes, not knowing he was looking for her, she called the same firefighter, "and I said, 'Do you remember that guy John from Christmas?'"
Their first date, just after New Year's, lasted 11 hours.
Instead of the planned dinner at a Long Island hotel, said LoPiccolo, "we sat at the bar from 7 to 1:30. Then we went to the lobby and sat there talking till 6:30 in the morning."
Said Mraz: "It was like I knew her my whole life, like I knew her from a past life. She is my angel of the ashes."
Last month, LoPiccolo moved into the Brooklyn firefighter's home.
With a September wedding in mind — a Roman Catholic ceremony under the Ground Zero cross, they hope — he decided to give her an engagement ring.
But the 35-year-old woman who grew up on Long Island didn't want a diamond. Instead, her ring is set with a gold-charm Maltese cross — the badge emblem of the Fire Department of New York — and Mraz's four-digit badge number.
The debris at Ground Zero is almost cleared now, with the last bodies of victims being buried and Mraz "raking the last of the rubble," said his fiancee.
"We want to share our story because we want to show people that something good came out of the terror," she said. "In the darkest of places, we received such a wonderful gift for Christmas."
— The Associated Press
Report: Terrorists Have Easy Access to Chemical Plants
P I T T S B U R G H, May 6 — Security is so lax at some of the country's chemical plants that a terrorist could easily access toxins dangerous or deadly to millions of people, a newspaper reported.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review spent a month probing security at 30 chemical facilities in Baltimore, Chicago and Houston after conducting a similar investigation into security at western Pennsylvania facilities.
At Houston's Clorox factory, workers left open gates to pens of chlorine gas. Gates left open by a neighboring plant also allowed easy entry to Chicago's NALCO factory, where more than $1 million was spent increasing security last year, the paper said.
A reporter entered Laroche Industries plants in Baltimore, Donora, Pa., and Riverdale, Ill., unchallenged and undetected, the paper said. The company, which has a chain of ammonia depots, said it is considering shuttering the Baltimore site and has implemented reforms at the other two sites.
A catastrophic release of chemicals at the Clorox and GB Biosciences plants in Houston or the Lambent Technologies site in Chicago could each put more than 1 million people at risk, while one at the Chemtrade/Marsulex could threaten 2.6 million in the Chicago area, the paper said.
The newspaper reported that the easy access shows that the industry isn't heeding its own recommendations.
Guidelines released in October by the American Chemistry Council, the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association and the Chlorine Institute urge facilities to fence properties, post patrols and eliminate hiding places along the perimeters.
Officials at some plants made security changes after the newspaper informed them of the investigation, but officials at other plants wouldn't listen to how security was breached or declined to comment on security.
"Sept. 11 was a wake-up call for the entire industry. It's unacceptable. We've been doing our own thing, but I think you're right. You should not be able to walk into one of our operations. We have to really protect our areas," said Paul Anderson, senior vice president in charge of manufacturing for KIK Corp.
After the newspaper entered the Canadian-based company's blow-molding site in Houston, KIK ordered a safety and security audit of its worldwide holdings.
"This is one of those things that, until there is a serious incident, doesn't catch people's attention. But the threat is very real, and a terrorist attack would knock sense into people. It shouldn't have to be that way. We shouldn't have to be thinking about this in the context of Sept. 11," said Sen. Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat.
Corzine's proposed Chemical Security Act of 2002 would require companies to protect neighbors from tanks through buffer zones and adopt safer technologies or reduce hazardous materials stores.
Many large companies do a reasonably good job of erecting fences and policing sites, but overall, security isn't uniform and is inadequate, Corzine said.
The American Chemistry Council, representing nearly 200 major producers, says Corzine's legislation is too broad, economically destructive and scientifically suspect.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman, as well as their spokesmen, declined to comment on the newspaper's investigation.
Paul Orum, director of Public Right to Know, an organization in Washington, D.C., that advocates governmental openness, said more must be done to reduce hazards than the voluntary standards the industry wants.
In June, the American Chemistry Council will mandate tougher security measures for its members, with independent risk assessments.
"The chemical industry has the resources and the knowledge to tackle this. We're afraid government is going to get in the way of that," said Dell Perelman, ACC's senior counsel.
Companies that fail to upgrade their safety and security could lose council membership. Nearly 90 percent of the chemicals manufactured in the United States are made in plants owned by ACC members.
It could take up to three years to implement the ACC's reforms and they won't extend to thousands of sites outside the trade group's umbrella.
— The Associated Press
Normal Will Never Be the Same Near Ground Zero
N E W Y O R K, May 6 — Schoolchildren fill the sidewalks again, stores are reopening, a moviehouse welcomes back customers with $2 tickets — the terror-scarred neighborhood near the World Trade Center is creeping back to normal.
But this is post-Sept. 11 normal, in which tourists ask for directions to "Ground Zero" and residents suffer the phantom-limb sensation of the twin towers.
"I still cry every day, practically," said Karen Brodsky, playing with her two small children in Washington Market Park four blocks from the ruins of the trade center. "We still are definitely grieving."
City officials say the cleanup of the 16-acre Trade Center site will be completed in late May or early June. Redevelopment plans are still uncertain. But the neighborhood's resurgence is more tangible.
Cars and pedestrians move about more freely. Six thousand people line up daily to see the Trade Center site from a viewing platform.
"It's very heart-touching," said 17-year-old Cheryl Sanoski of Sharpsville, Pa., visiting New York on a three-day trip with 50 members of her high school class.
Business is downtown's business, and its renewal is more vexing. More than 4.5 million square feet of office space in 10 attack-damaged buildings remain unoccupied. Owners are negotiating with insurers to determine how, and whether, the buildings can be reopened.
The Alliance for Downtown New York estimates 100,000 of the 370,000 jobs downtown are gone, and 11,000 businesses have closed or moved.
Grants and loans have boosted other businesses, like Trade Center Locksmith, which reopened Oct. 25. Owner Assad Mirshamsi said he was in shock at first, wondering if he would make it. Sales are only 65 percent of pre-Sept. 11 levels, he said, but "the business is surviving, with the help that we are getting."
The World Financial Center, an 8 million-square-foot office-retail complex heavily damaged in the attacks, is still struggling. Some major companies, including Merrill Lynch and Deloitte & Touche, are moving back. Others, like Lehman Brothers, don't plan to return. Only a handful of the complex's retail stores returned.
The nearby 16-screen Regal Cinemas multiplex reopened Friday, though restaurants on either side are still closed and the parking lot next door is occupied by a federal Environmental Protection Agency tent where trade center site workers are decontaminated.
Mental health is on everyone's mind.
Gee Whiz diner owner Andy Koutsoudakis, who said he watched 25 people leap to their deaths from the burning towers after the terrorist attacks, still swaps stories with customers from that terrible day. "A lot of people say it makes them feel better," he said.
A Board of Education study released last week found that tens of thousands of city schoolchildren had chronic nightmares, severe anxiety and other disaster-related mental health problems.
"The mood is anxious, but that is not post-traumatic stress," said Bob Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, which operates after-school and youth programs in the neighborhood.
"I think five years from now, we'll see that the real victims were the people in the trade center," he said. "We're a little shellshocked but we're all right. You heal. What are you going to do?"
— The Associated Press