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Cruel calculus: The death toll

By Richard Esposito
Special to CNN

As darkness falls, the city seems different.

It is quiet. Streets are empty. Official cars covered with rubble dust are driving in silence.

The reports are of at least 78 police officers unaccounted for and perhaps 300 firefighters presumed dead. We may learn of other emergency workers who died racing into danger before the second plane struck the World Trade Center, desperately trying to save others, others who were already killed or about to die.

There are no official counts of how many are dead. But this can already be felt: the number will change a city and change a nation.

The mayor has said the numbers will be horrific. A former New York City police commissioner agrees the city will never be the same.

Now, the counting is being done by calculation. No exact numbers. Just facts that add up to a sum that is truly unthinkable.

The two main Trade Center towers that fell housed at least 50,000 workers. Beneath them is a subway concourse, where tens of thousands more arrived to work in lower Manhattan, exiting trains even as the planes arrived.

At this time, no one knows how many were killed by the impact of the planes, or the explosions or how many lay dying beneath the stories of rubble that cover the streets when the walls melted and collapsed.

Firefighter emergency beepers, the ones they wear to keep track of each other inside burning buildings, are slowly fading as batteries run out. Frantic cell phone calls have rescuers trying to dig out possible survivors.

But even if we had the numbers, we don't have the context to comprehend them. A bad year in Vietnam during the height of the war is one way to look at what happened yesterday in New York City.

The last time the Trade Center was hit, it was a car bomb. When that occurred, in 1993, most of the workers were evacuated. Then, the streets were cold, and there were snow flurries that people walked through when they crept out of the building. This time, there were people jumping from the building to try to get out.

By nightfall, correspondents on television were doing reports from in front of what would have been the Twin Towers as backdrop. Instead, there was an empty, dark night.

This will have an impact on people that will be known only in retrospect. Nothing recent compares. Not Waco nor Oklahoma City nor the beating of Rodney King.

I live in New York and the first thing I thought of was my daughter and whether she was safe. She was. Then, I thought about how this will affect her life. She is a little shy of seven. She may have an inkling that her world has changed. I did, when a little shy of seven I learned that John F. Kennedy was slain.

Last night, though, there was only shock, the kind of devastation that precedes mourning. After the attacks, midtown Manhattan seemed changed. The streets were crowded. But people moved slowly. You could hear voices, even from a taxi, of people talking to each other. It was very strange. No cell phones. Virtually no traffic.

Just an eerie twilight end to a terrible summer tragedy.

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