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