Maria Atanasov: NYC is Very, Very Sad

Novinite Insider » INTERVIEW | September 11, 2002, Wednesday // 00:00

Mrs Atanasov is an American journalist with Bulgarian origin. She currently works at The Wall Street Journal. She spent a year in Bulgaria, teaching journalism in the American University in Bulgaria.

Mrs Atanasov answered questions of Martina Iovcheva

Q: What is the mood in New York one year after the September 11th assaults?

A: That's a tough question. There is no single mood. I think people are still shocked and still depressed when they think about that tragic day. The world may have suffered, but New Yorkers suffered the most. Anyone one of us could have been working in a building that could have been hit that day. I think New Yorkers though are strong, though. And while that one day has changed us forever, I think we realize we must push on and show the terrorists we will survive. Less than 12 hours before the one-year anniversary of the attacks, I think the mood is emotional and sad-very, very sad. And on one hand the media attention has been good, it has also been overwhelming, constantly refreshing the images of that day. It's hard to go through the healing process when you are constantly reminded of the events on every TV station. I don't think it's as difficult reading stories about the events. But it is very difficult watching it all happen again. For the people who witnessed the event, we don't need to keep seeing the pictures. They are forever burned into our minds.

Q: Where were you on September 11th last year? What are your most vivid memories from that day?

A: I happened to be home that morning meeting a contractor who was going to start doing some work on our house. I dropped my husband off at the train and a while later he called to tell me he was OK and there had been a terrible plane accident. The first thought in my mind was "Did I hear him correctly? Did he mean a train crash?" He told me to turn on the news. I did and watched the second tower get hit by the plane.

Then I left to try to find my husband. He works only a few blocks away from the WTC and his building was immediately evacuated once the second plane hit. In fact, he used to work at 7 World Trade, one of the buildings that later collapsed that day. He had been in that building the week before training the new associates.

The sheer volume of cell phone usuage blocked all lines. No one could make phone calls in New York or to New York for hours. He walked north along the river. All the ferries and tunnels were closed. I left for New York, aiming to get as close as possible to find him off one of the ferries. From near my house, I used to be able to see both towers jutting in front of me for miles and miles as I drove in. But on this day, all you could see were stacks of smoke. It was very disorienting to lose that landmark. It didn't' feel like New York anymore.

He finally got on a ferry across once they opened them to get people home. And that was one of the scariest moments. You watched panic-stricken wives waiting for their husbands to get off ferry boats, and hoping your husband was on there.

My most vivid memories: Watching two columns of smoke on my drive in and from the New Jersey banks of the Hudson River, where I had a full skyline view.

Watching people get off the ferry boats and the frantic wives.

Q: Did you know any of the victims or do you know their friends and relatives?

A: We're very fortunate. None of our friends died in the attacks. But many of our friends lost friends. My husband's co-worker attended 10 funerals.

Q: Do New Yorkers fear new attacks?

A: I think it would be naпve for us to think another attack on the U.S. is unlikely. But I strongly believe we won't have another attack in New York. Terrorists are smart. They'll hit when and where we're least expecting.

Q: How did life in the United States and your work in particular change after September 11?

Security everywhere was much tighter. Suddenly you had to show ID to gain entrance to buildings and get special clearance. The person you were visiting had to come down and escort you upstairs. Mail to companies was being steam cleaned to kill anthrax.

Fortunately, the week before Sept. 11 was the first week I had stopped working in the city and started free-lance writing from my home office. So I didn't have to deal with a workplace reshuffling. That said, my new employer, The Wall Street Journal, lost their office space, which was damaged in the World Financial Center across the street. Everyone was moved to corporate headquarters in New Jersey. Only last month, the building was finally ready to be moved back into. Two-thirds of our staff was relocated back. One-third of us, they've decided, will remain in New Jersey. My division will stay in New Jersey. We have a security pass to let us in the parking lot. Use the security pass to get into the building. And use it again in the elevator to get to our floor.

My husband's workplace was closed for a few days as the FBI took over his building for a vantage point of the WTC site. His building is the next tallest building in the area.

Q: Do you share the opinion that the American foreign policy was partly responsible for the September 11th attacks?

A: I don't know how I feel about this. Hindsight is 20/20 and it's always easier to look back at incidents and criticize. I don't know whether foreign policy could have stopped these attacks or is the sole culprit. I do think foreign policy could have been tougher in earlier embassy attacks abroad and viewed as more serious threats, and possibly action taken then would have prevented this from happening. And I think attacks like this that show us weaknesses in our system. But I think America wouldn't have been able to garner support to go after terrorists before the attacks happened against civilians and on our own soil. I don't think anyone would have anticipated the towers would have collapsed. They were, in fact, designed to be able to withstand a plane hitting them when they were built. Planes get lost in the night, etc. and those towers are the tallest. But I don't think anyone was ready for what happened or could have easily prevented. There was too much planning involved-flight schools, terrorist cells, fake IDs. I think our lax airport security and flight schools are more to blame in this case than foreign policy.

Q: Has the attitude towards ordinary Muslims in the United States changed?

A: Unfortunately, yes, and it's very sad that it has. I think there was a witch hunt immediately after the attacks and probably to some degree still exists, though less so. There's racial profiling in arrests and neighbors calling the FBI to report their Muslim neighbors as being suspicious, when the neighbors, in fact, have done nothing wrong. And many Muslims following the attacks were attacked by Americans on the street. We know of people who have stopped wearing their formal Muslim attire as to avoid being harassed. Some are even using Americanized nicknames. Americans need to remember that many of these Muslims are Americans as well, immigrants who came here for the same dreams and opportunities that makes America what it is. The whole thing is unnerving. Terrorists don't come in one shape or size. They look normal. Many of the terrorists are young, dressed in Western fashion. They don't fit any one image-except they are Muslim. And I'm ashamed for my country, but this stereotype has been cast unfairly to the entire community-man of whom have been afraid to leave their homes or practice their faith for fear of being a target.

Q: Are there three words, with which you could describe the September 11th assaults?

A: I have more than three: Devastating, shocking, tragic, immoral, painful and wrong.

Q: Top Bulgarian officials, led by President Parvanov are in the United States on September 11. What is the image of the country in U.S.?

Bulgaria is dear to my heart, but I think Americans could care less about Parvanov's visit. I certainly don't. I didn't know he was coming and his visit is inconsequential to my life on this day. I'm worried about future attacks, the safety of my friends and family, our depressed economy and whether we're about to go to war with Iraq-real issues that concern America. I think in good times, perhaps Parvanov, like Ivanov before him, would maybe get more attention. But on Sept. 11, it's very selfish of Bulgaria to think it should be a priority on American's minds. We worry about so many countries and provide financial aid to many of them, including Bulgaria. On Sept. 11, America is allowed to think only of itself.

Q: As a journalist and as a person who has lived in Bulgaria what is your opinion about the economic situation in Bulgaria? How could the business environment be improved?

A: Stop the corruption and oust the mafia and communists from power for good-you know the ones I'm talking about-the ones with the Mercedes and BMWs and enormous mansions. I've always wondered how they are so very rich, with bodyguards, when everyone else is struggling. When those people become transparent, and stop taking a bit off the top here and there, or when they die, Bulgaria will have a chance. It'll be the generation of 20-somethings that bring the change.

Secondly, stop rushing to get into the European Union. Bulgaria is not economically ready and putting it in the EU would only bankrupt it. The plight of the average Bulgarian is getting worse as he or she finds it more and more difficult to survive. Heating oil prices in Bulgaria during the winter were pressured to meet Western levels, costing Bulgarians almost as much as or in the case of pensioners, more than their monthly income.

There are too many answers to this question. The Bulgarian economy needs to stimulate jobs. If you want to be in the EU, Bulgarian companies need to pay EU wages. Make your markets liquid to attract foreign investment. Open up company books. Open to the public the finances and assets of elected officials. I'm talking full transparency. Offer bigger tax shelters to foreign investors for stimulating the economy. Encourage entrepreneurs and help small business owners develop.

Lastly, stop complaining and do something about it. Bulgaria has come a very long way in the past decade. But no one can help Bulgaria but Bulgarians. If you do not demand the changes and work hard to enact them, no one else will. It's easy to sit at the cafй smoking and drinking coffee. It's another to organize efforts to foster small-business organizations and lobbying groups to protect your interests, more jobs, better education, better wages and an affordable lifestyle.

Q: What are your best memories from your stay in Bulgaria?

A: Having my husband ask me to be his wife in Melnik; being christened by Father Leonid at Rila Monestary; hiking in the beautiful mountains to the Rila Lakes; waking up in the morning to the rooster crowing; going to the vegetable market; Nesebir; the delicious food at Bar-B-Q restaurant in Sandanski; getting to know distant relatives and family friends; helping my students believe in themselves.

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