Natural Foods Merchandiser

Two Witnesses To Infamous Tragedy

Just before 8:45 on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, Paul Kralyevich was walking north along 6th Avenue in New York City on his way to LifeThyme Complete Natural Market, where he is chief operating officer, when he heard a jet fly over. He was less than five blocks away from the store, a fixture in Greenwich Village located about 20 blocks north of the World Trade Center. The jet, he thought, seemed unusually low, but he told himself, "It'll be fine."

At the same time, Cornucopia Health Foods had been open for nearly two hours. Cornucopia, too, was a fixture where it had been doing business the last 24 years: on the concourse of the World Trade Center. That morning, as usual, customers were buying vitalizing juices and organic coffee before rushing off to their offices in the two silvery towers looming 110 stories above the store. Larry Fox, Cornucopia's 64-year-old owner, was standing in the lobby of the south tower when, without warning, he heard "a loud bang." Through the lobby windows, he saw debris raining down. Fox ran to the store and ordered his seven panicked employees to get out. Police, now clearing the building, said an aircraft had crashed. Fox assumed that it was small plane and he'd soon be coming back to the 2,000-square-foot store. He left everything—money, paperwork, receipts—behind. Then he locked the door.

Kralyevich, meanwhile, thought there'd been a car accident because he saw people looking down the street. "Then the [north tower of the] Trade Center was on fire. I thought, 'I know they have sprinklers—so why aren't the sprinklers working?' Then the building started to melt. The outer skin was stainless steel, all nice and silvery, and it was melting, melting." Nine hundred degrees; it had to be 900 degrees, he was thinking—at which point harsh fact melted into deep sorrow: "It looked like it was crying." Tears were falling when the second jet struck the south tower 20 minutes later. "I saw the fireball—and then there were people crying everywhere." Kralyevich knew he had to get to LifeThyme. "Everybody from lower Manhattan was walking, just walking, north over the Brooklyn Bridge, up 5th Avenue, up 6th Avenue, in nice, orderly fashion. But no one was talking, or they were talking like they were in church."

Fox, safely outside with his workers, now discovered "a huge plane" had struck the Trade Center. "I was standing on Church Street," he said. "Flames were shooting out the north tower and people were jumping. I was crying. A young man and young woman held hands and jumped from the 80th floor. That put me over the edge. All of a sudden, I saw what looked like a missile explode into the south building. We all turned around and just ran; it was a stampede."

When he arrived at the store, Kralyevich decided it should remain open, even though it was on 6th Avenue and inside the lockdown zone instituted to keep people out of the area below 14th Street. By 1p.m., most of the other nearby food outlets had shut down. Two hours later, there were so many people stocking up on water, bread, chicken and milk that Kralyevich realized he had to stay open to serve them in the crisis. Twenty-two employees were on hand. "I told the crew, 'Anybody who wants to go, go.' A couple people with families left. The young ones were saying, 'We can't get home anyway, so we might as well work.' The kitchen crew just kept cooking. There was a lot of nervous energy." LifeThyme eventually closed at 9 p.m. An exhausted Kralyevich was somewhere in the middle of what was to be 14 straight days of work.

Fox realized he had no more work, no more business. He told his employees to go home; somehow he'd try to get in touch with them later on. He decided to head to his apartment two blocks away in Battery Park City. The very moment he entered the apartment, he saw, through his window, the collapse of the south tower. Smoke, dust, soot came roiling past the apartment building; Fox decided he couldn't stay there. He headed back to the streets, figuring, somewhat confusedly, that he had 20 places to go but nowhere to sleep. All around him, the air smelled bad, like decaying food, he thought. He spent the afternoon "just walking around. There was a kid about 20 years old, a nice-looking boy with a backpack. He said, 'Could I use your cell phone? My mother's in Maryland.' I said, 'Go ahead and try it.' He calls up and says, 'Hello, Mom,' and starts getting hysterical crying." About 4 p.m., Fox's daughter, Kerrie Fox, who had been desperately trying to reach him, finally got through to his cell phone. She gave him the address of a friend of hers where he could spend the night. The next day, he moved in temporarily with Kerrie in nearby Maplewood, N.J. "I slept, but I got a little melancholy with the reminders. But I'll be fine."

LifeThyme opened promptly at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Everybody showed up for work; Kralyevich was proud of them. "They didn't miss a beat. I have people working in the store literally from all over the world—this is New York. They were worried about their folks or brothers and sisters in Trinidad, in India, Brazil, Columbia, Guatemala and Mexico. I said, 'Go to the office and make any phone calls you want to anywhere in the world. Just call and tell them you're OK. That was really important to them." Then there were all the shaken customers. "I said [to my employees], 'We have to make the place as normal as possible. If you run out of broccoli, Mr. Produce Man, that's OK, put watermelon there. Customers won't care; they're just happy we're open.'" Because of the lockdown, "delivery trucks had to stop at 14th Street. So we took products down the street on hand trucks. We always had bread; we always had milk; we always had the essentials."

On Wednesday, Fox walked back to his apartment for what essential clothes he could carry. He went by way of Penn Station. "[On the way] I saw the photos of people who'd been lost—I must have seen 20 of my customers. All young kids. It was terrible, terrible." Those first days he never thought about what was going to happen to him now that his store was gone. Instead, he picked up the telephone to find jobs for all 12 of his now unemployed workers. "I'd do anything to help those kids out. They're a great staff, and whoever's fortunate enough to get them, will thank me." He next wrote out checks to each of them for two weeks' pay. "They need the money more than I do."

On Thursday, Kralyevich found a bit of normalcy amid the tragedy: The store's garbage was piling up. "We're supposed to get trash service six days a week. So we're running out of space, even though we're packing it nice and keeping it as orderly as trash can be. I called my trash company and asked when we should put it out. They said, 'Put it out tonight.' My manager comes in Friday morning and the trash is still outside. We look at life differently these days; little problems like this, no big deal. We'll just wait another day. All of a sudden, a strange garbage truck—not our service's—comes and picks up our garbage. Now, in New York that's never done—everybody's very territorial about their routes. The manager tells the guys on the truck, 'Hold on, let me give you a tip.' He goes inside the store for a $20 bill. But when he comes out, they're gone. Even the garbage men wanted the place to look as normal as possible."

Sept. 25 was the first day Fox "started thinking about what I'm going to do." He hadn't yet determined the exact dollar value of his loss—"six figures" was all he knew—and he was still in the throes of dealing with his insurance company and various government agencies. Nor was he back in his apartment. He'd also told a grief counselor who'd called that he didn't need her services because, "I'll be fine." He said his plan was to "just go forward. New Yorkers I meet say, 'I'm getting out of here.' I reply, 'What are you talking about? It's your home—you gotta rebuild it. I'm staying.' Battery Park City is the most beautiful part of New York. It's my home, and I'm staying. If they build a new Trade Center, that's where I want my store to be."

In late September, a weary Kralyevich spent four days on holiday in upstate New York. "I wanted to wake up to trees," he said, instead of the smell of "unsettled souls," a description he'd read in a newspaper. As for the store, "Business has been off 10 to 15 percent. No one wants to eat. All the restaurants are empty. People lost their appetites over this. Nobody's buying cosmetics or things for themselves, either. They're not worried if their hair needs conditioning right now. They're buying the basics, they're buying things they can prepare at home with friends. Business will come back, though. I'm optimistic, I really am. When you see rescue workers from Chicago, police officers from Flint, Mich., ambulances from Rhode Island—when you see that, you feel really good. You see that other people care."

Note: Larry Fox is still in the process of finding jobs for his 12 employees in the New York City area. He can be reached at 917.731.5001.

The Industry Comes Through

The National Nutritional Foods Association is acting as a clearinghouse for members interested in donating products, services and funds to disaster relief efforts in New York City, as well as the American Red Cross. More information is available from Adam Finney at the NNFA: 800.966.6632, ext. 230.

Some naturals companies lent support within days of the tragedy: Wild Oats donated 5 percent of its sales for Sept. 18; Whole Foods Markets also donated 5 percent of its sales for Oct. 2; Naked Food Juice gave clothing, blood, juices; the downtown Manhattan-based Loco Soda sent beverages, meat, pies; LifeThyme, fresh fruit; Advantage Marketing Systems, stress relief supplements; Shaklee, energy bars; Stonyfield Farm, yogurt; United Natural Foods, water and energy bars; Caraloe (Carrington Labs), wound and burn care products; Prolab Nutrition (Natrol), energy bars; and Planet Dog made a cash contribution to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation to support dogs working at the WTC site.

Other Retailers Who Were There

Krishna Gillespie, general manager at Integral Yoga Natural Foods on West 13th Street, was home in his apartment when the store called the morning of Sept. 11. His employees were watching the unfolding tragedy from the roof of the store, about a mile and a half from the World Trade Center. "As I was on the phone, the first tower collapsed. After the second tower came down, and with news about the Pentagon, people [in the store] were panicky—plus there were rumors of gas leaks [so] we shut down a little past 12 noon."

But Integral Yoga opened the next day. "I left messages on voice mail to customers [telling them] we would be open for limited hours," Gillespie said. "We had decided to stay open until 5 p.m., but we were busy and changed it to 7 p.m. My thought was that we could service the immediate needs of people in the neighborhood. We had a skeleton crew of people who didn't want to stay home. There was that embattled feeling, that we were under attack [yet] we had a job to do."

On Wednesday and Thursday, the store contributed deli and salad bar-type food to a hospital for the numerous volunteers who were arriving. "Giving food made us feel like we were doing something," Gillespie said. The hospital received so much donated food, eventually it couldn't handle any more. Integral Yoga then gave to a Salvation Army center a few blocks away. "When we arrived there, one of the girls who was volunteering came up to us and said, 'You guys are awesome, all this vegan food! Last night all they had were baloney sandwiches.'"

Not everyone, however, seemed willing to extend goodwill in a time of crisis. "There were a few [customers] who were business as usual. 'When are you going to get the carob donuts in?' [they'd demand]. On Tuesday, while we were still open, a woman with one block of tofu said [as she checked out], 'That was a really long line for tofu.' She was mad. One of our managers told her, with righteous anger, 'There are thousands of people dying in this city right now, and if you have to wait in a long line for tofu, I'm sorry,' " Gillespie said.

Joann Pelletiere was on her way to work as manager for Aphrodisia, a bulk herb, spices and body care store on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, when she witnessed the collapse of the twin towers. After that, Pelletiere opened the store, but less to do business than to interact with the local community. "Aphrodisia has been here 31 years, and we're a haven. People came in and got a hug. We just hung out together—and a lot of tears [were] shed. We lost, in this neighborhood, about 20 firemen from the two [fire] houses."

The first few days after the disaster, the scattering of customers who came into the store were buying healing products, Pelletiere said, such as lavender and Rescue Remedy. "I have the unique position of being here so many years that I've seen children grow up, and seen their families also. So, for me, even though I'm suffering from not having money, it's more important to see the people."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 11/p. 5, 7

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