Observations: The City With a Heart

They don’t close streets in New York when the President comes to visit, but they pretty much stopped the City the other day for Brigit Gerney.

Brigit Gerney is 49, she has an eleven-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter. Her husband died of cancer two years ago. That’s about all we know about Brigit Gerney; for her sake, we can hope that’s all we’ll ever know. Except that at lunchtime on a bright May 30, Brigit Gerney went for a walk and a 35-ton crane fell on her; so they stopped the City for her, for about six hours.

It happened at 63rd and Third, but it could have happened anywhere in town. Suddenly, Third Avenue became Brigit Gerney’s private domain. It looked like every cop in town, every official, every doctor, wanted to help. The Mayor was there. The Police Commissioner was there. Even the Headmistress of the Gerney childrens’ school was there.

She was pinned, on the edge of a thirty or forty foot deep construction pit, by the cab of a toppled crane which, it turned out, had been operating illegally, and by an unlicensed worker at that. There was a cop next to her, and she told him she was worried about him, too. She told them to take off her legs if necessary, but the doctors said they’d wait, and so they did. Finally, a rescue crane came, but it was too small. A second crane came, but it too was too small. A third crane, a monster crane, came at 4:00. She’d already been there for the entire afternoon, and now a third try.

The local priest showed up. She was absolved, he said, but he couldn’t anoint her because he couldn’t get to her. A cop became a Eucharistic minister for the parish for the hour, and she received communion at some point in her agony.

And the people. Hundreds came by, all respectful, all curious. Some were the usual gawkers; most stood by helpless, not knowing what to do. They were professionals and construction workers and ordinary people out for a stroll. Why, they kept asking, why did it take so long? This is New York. Everything happens here, but it happens quickly.

lt didn’t happen quickly for Brigit Gerney, who for six hours stopped this city and focused its attention on what counts. For a brief, sunny, warm and friendly May afternoon Brigit Gerney caused the most monumental ecumenical prayer service this town’s ever seen. It didn’t matter that it took an hour and a half to drive the half hour from Bronx; there was a woman trapped under a crane. It didn’t matter that appointments were missed; a life was in danger.

They finally got the third crane in place. The cynic will point out that she was freed in time for it to be broadcast live on the 6:00 news, which it was. There was a cheer on Third Avenue, a muted cheer which sounded more like a sigh, when she was freed. They put her in the ambulance and got her to Bellevue very fast. They’d closed the East River Drive for her.

They said they’d know, in hours or days or weeks, how her legs would do and whether they’d have to take one or both of them off. There won’t be that much news about her anymore, unless some heartless PR flack lets word of her departure from the hospital loose among the media. With luck, she won’t be known or much remembered next month, or next year.

But she made it, and that made the people standing around hoping against hope that somehow what appeared to be the unmovable would be moved and the woman not one bystander could see would get out of all this safely.

And so she did, the city’s white-knuckled hold on hope released a bit, and things relaxed, and for a few hours at least strangers around 63rd and Third grinned nearly idiotically at each other in the uncategorized feeling which mixes relief with triumph, and with a rediscovered understanding that when you worry about someone else you find yourself feeling very, very human.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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