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The 'Forgotten' Victims
Published on Wednesday, September 19, 2001 by the BBC
The 'Forgotten' Victims
 
Their story has been almost lost in the coverage of the World Trade Center attack. But, writes BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy in New York, the friends and relatives of those who worked at the city's highest restaurant are devastated at their loss.

They are, perhaps, the forgotten victims of New York's nightmare.

In the media, stories about the white-collar professionals who populated the World Trade Center have been told and told again.

Bankers, lawyers, analysts - the high earners and high achievers of America's financial capital all figure highly in the list of casualties.

But among those trapped with them in the north tower of the WTC were people from an entirely different background - the waiters, chefs and kitchen hands from the Windows on the World restaurant.

Windows on the World billed itself as New York's highest restaurant. Occupying the 106th and 107th floors of Trade Tower One, it afforded spectacular views of Manhattan island.

While its clientele was well-heeled, its staff was mostly made up of hard-working immigrants on basic pay from Africa, South America and elsewhere.

Eighty were on duty last Tuesday morning when a passenger plane ploughed into the offices below. So far, the bodies of three have been found. The rest are still classified as missing.

Rostered off

Chef Siby Sekou should have been there that day. He normally works Tuesday to Saturday but had been asked to fill in for a colleague on the Sunday before the attack. That left him with Tuesday as a day off.

His relief at having escaped is tempered only by the overwhelming grief for his lost colleagues, many of whom were his friends and one of whom was his cousin.

Siby was at home in the Bronx when he first heard about the attack. His cousin's wife called him, frantically worried for the safety of her husband. Siby called the restaurant - both the kitchen and the bar - but all lines were engaged.

He tried his cousin's mobile phone but there was no answer.

"I didn't have anything more to do. I just had to wait and pray. But I never in a million years thought the building would collapse."

With it went all his colleagues. Two staff at the restaurant managed to make calls from their mobiles. They said the stairwell was clogged with people trying to get down.

Friends and family lost

For Siby, 36, the loss is nothing short of devastating. Having arrived in the US from the Ivory Coast in 1996, the friends he made at work were also his closest friends.

Many of them can be seen in the wallet of snapshots he carries in a shoulder bag. One picture shows Siby and a colleague smiling in front of a lift door at the Trade Center.

"They were really good friends of mine. We used to hang out together on days off. The Saturday before we all went to Korona Park in Flushing to play soccer.

"My cousin dropped me home that night and that was the last time I saw him."

His voice is steeped in grief and, a week after the attack, his mind is obviously still preoccupied with the terrible fate of his friends.

Mourning the missing

He has just emerged from an evening meeting of surviving staff, and relatives of those missing. About 120 people were off shift last Tuesday and this is the first time Siby has seen many of them since that dreadful day.

Workers discussed what could be done for the relatives and job prospects for themselves. After all, Siby is now unemployed.

He knows he needs to find work soon. His wife is expecting their first baby in three weeks.

But he is a long way from getting over the emotional trauma.

"My feeling is that I've got to give myself at least two more weeks. If I find a job now and I don't perform at the top level I'll be out and it will erode my confidence.

"I'm still thinking about these friends."

Holding out hope

It's similar for Elias Mejia. Although he didn't work at Windows on the World, he was close by on the day and saw the events unfold with his own eyes.

Inside the building were his sister and brother-in-law and two of his cousins. Like many of the staff at Windows on the World, they herald from Ecuador.

"It's unbelievable," he says, and repeats the word as a whisper to himself.

"I am devastated. I think about them a lot and I'm still praying for them. I trust in God that he will take care of them and help them if they are in heaven.

"But amazing things happen. I still have hope. People in tragedies like this can live for 15 days."

But it is a week since the last survivor was pulled from the wreckage and Elias is struggling to muster much optimism.

Sinking into a deeply reflective mood for a moment, he calls the interview to a close before returning to an earlier observation.

"It's unbelievable."

Copyright 2001 BBC

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