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It’s Not Business as Usual for Towers’ Tenants

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The deadly explosion that ripped through the basement of the World Trade Center was so powerful that the twin 110-story towers will both be closed Monday and possibly considerably longer, leaving 350 firms and about 55,000 workers scrambling to find ways to carry on business.

The blast smashed underground pipes, leaving a 16-acre sub-basement knee deep in water and some normally busy shops coated with ice, officials said Saturday. The center’s firefighting capacity and all communications systems were crippled. The Hotel Vista in the trade center was shut with major damage. Offices and hallways were coated with soot and black smoke.

Engineers attempting to reinforce walls and columns and to clear debris stared with amazement at a 100-foot-wide by 60-foot-deep hole in the trade center’s sub-basements.

“The crater is like looking into a volcano,” said Eugene Fasullo, chief engineer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the huge complex near Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. “The magnitude was almost unbelievable when you see the consequences of the explosion.”

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Engineers and construction experts worked round the clock Saturday trying to reopen the complex. But the timing was highly uncertain. Even before columns beneath the hotel could be reinforced, police, FBI agents and other federal investigators had to complete evidence collection at the site of the blast--which officials said was almost certainly caused by a bomb. And the investigators could work only after the blast site itself was made safe.

“The floors of the parking garage are not unsound. They are just not there any more,” said Fasullo.

“It’s hard to know when business will resume,” said Stanley Brezenoff, the port authority’s executive director. “We will try to help them find alternate ways of operating. . . . It is hard to know how much businesses will be affected.”

About 55,000 people work in the center and, with those who pass through it on business, it is occupied by about 100,000 people each weekday.

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Plans were under way to allow some employers to briefly enter the complex with escorts, perhaps as early as Monday, to retrieve vital documents and computer data. But engineers said it could be an extended period of time before operations in the trade center’s towers return to normal.

Tenants in the complex, including major brokerage firms, accountants and banks, were spending the weekend trying to contact clients, re-establish telephone links and return to some semblance of normal business. It was an enormous task.

Hours after the blast, police and FBI agents met with the trade center’s top engineers to develop an action plan. The first order of business was to shore up the blast area on the second level of a basement garage so forensic experts could collect evidence. That process, police and engineers said, could take some time.

“We are probably looking at a couple of days to a week,” said Charles Maikish, the trade center’s director.

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The explosion did not cause any damage to the structural integrity of the trade center’s twin towers. But in the basement parking levels beneath the Hotel Vista, destruction was extensive. The blast left a large hole in the floor of the hotel’s ornate lobby. Other floors underneath the hotel crumbled, leaving supporting columns in peril.

The blast cracked water pipes, flooding the lowest basement level of the complex and knocking out communications equipment and generators. Teams of engineers worked to fabricate supports for the columns, once the forensic investigation was completed. Other teams surveyed electrical, communications and fire safety systems.

As emergency crews worked to repair the damage from Friday’s blast, the financial fallout from the explosion rippled through the local business community and around the country--underscoring the role of New York’s financial district in the nation’s economy.

Engineers and crews from local and long-distance telephone companies were struggling to repair the critical data and telephone transmission equipment that allows the many banking, brokerage and accounting firms with offices in the trade center to conduct billions of dollars worth of financial transactions each day.

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“It was a miracle our facilities weren’t more heavily damaged,” said Robert Atkins, a vice president at Teleport Communications Group, which provides local telephone and data transmission for many trade center businesses and has a major switching facility underneath the towers. The facility has been running on emergency power since the explosion.

Atkins said he expects the communications system to be ready for operation by Monday. “We are not sparing any expense in getting this system repaired. Too much is at stake for our clients,” he said.

The explosion, in the public parking lot below the hulking towers at the edge of New York’s financial hub, interrupted business at some commodity markets and several big financial firms, such as Dean Witter and the Sumitomo Bank. It also left many shops on the ground level coated with ice and water and littered with pieces of concrete and metal.

The accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, hard on the tax-season crunch, began broadcasting radio ads Saturday to reassure clients that they will continue to be served. Deloitte instructed employees to call their telephone answering services for instructions on where to report next week.

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Dean Witter, one of the largest tenants at the trade center complex with about 4,500 employees, was set to begin running announcements today on its telephone lines informing employees and customers that the company will be open for business on Monday. The company rerouted its telephone lines to other locations.

“From a customers’ standpoint he won’t notice any change,” said Jim Flynn, a senior vice president at Dean Witter.

It was a different story for retailers and restaurants in the streets surrounding the complex. Many owners complained Saturday about a big drop in business.

Across the street from the trade center, only three customers had stopped at the normally bustling Godiva Chocolatier outlet by midday Saturday. The explosion, said Godiva sales clerk Angela Grandberry, “has affected our business tremendously. The police have blocked off a lot of the streets around here . . . and a lot of people are afraid to come around here.”

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A few companies, however, actually saw their normally slow weekend business improve.

One suburban businessman benefiting from the blast was Aram Atmaca, owner of the Falcon Cleaners located near the Rye, N.Y., train station in Westchester County, north of Manhattan.

Just hours after opening for business Saturday, he displayed a huge bin overflowing with clothes from clients who worked in the trade center. The garments were blackened by soot.

The L. Rose Hardware store chain also got an unexpected boost in business following the blast. Company employees spent most of the weekend rushing to fill a 10-ton truck with shovels, wheelbarrows and other equipment and supplies ordered by repair crews at the blast site.

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Trade center officials said it was too early to put a figure on the damage or how long it might take to make complete repairs.

Robert A. Marchman, a managing director in the enforcement division of the New York Stock Exchange, whose staff was led to safety down 28 flights of pitch-black stairs by a supervisor wielding a flashlight, said Saturday that he doubted many businesses in the trade center would resume very quickly.

Marchman said that although the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street will be open for trading on Monday, employees based in the trade center were asked to call a special number today to find out if they are to report to work.

Times staff writer Linda Grant contributed to this story.

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