Hope Checks Out of the Pierre

Walking into the Pierre ballroom, the crowded and chaotic headquarters for the families of missing Cantor Fitzgerald employees, psychiatrist Kerry Sulkowicz braced himself for a moment, stopping to read the agonized flyers taped to the walls. “It’s overwhelming,” he murmured, pointing to a father-and-young-son photo with a heartbreaking plea for information: “Daddy, please come home.”

The scene in the room on Thursday afternoon was a primal outpouring of grief: hundreds of people crying, hugging each other, milling around, passing along the latest frightening rumors, jumping hopefully at the sound of cell phones, their faces collapsing moments later in disappointment. Then the crowd quickly hushed and gathered around two televisions to watch Cantor Fitzgerald’s chairman, Howard Lutnick, being interviewed on ABC by Connie Chung. As Lutnick broke down on air, weeping as he talked about the 700 staffers missing and presumed dead, the entire room collapsed sobbing.

Sulkowicz, a 42-year-old with rimless wire glasses, a dark suit, and a nurturing expression, was in the ballroom for a second day as an unpaid volunteer, recruited by a fellow psychiatrist. He wandered around to make himself available, but few people wanted to talk. He understood their reluctance. “If they talk to a mental-health professional, it means confronting their sense of hope,” said Sulkowicz, a faculty member at the NYU Psychoanalytic Institute. “They want to believe in a miracle, that people will be found.”

A priest walked up to a microphone to offer his prayers, a calm, sad voice amid the tumult, inviting anyone who wanted religious comfort to see him. Here in this elegant ballroom, the site of so many glamorous weddings and conferences, and a celebrity-studded Al Gore fund-raiser a year ago, dazed and red-eyed men and women, who looked like they’d slept in their clothes, bumped into each other as if sleepwalking. Incongruously tuxedo’d waiters padded silently among them, passing out water and soft drinks. As if being set for a grand dinner, the round tables, covered in starched white cloths, had numbers on them, but the special horror was that these were the floor numbers — 101, 103, 104, 105 of 1 World Trade Center — where Cantor Fitzgerald staffers had worked. For family members, this offered the simplest way to find the relatives of the guy down the hall or at the next desk from their own missing.

On the television, the talking heads were interrupted by a news bulletin: Rescue workers were being evacuated from a dangerous area. Moments later, in the ladies room, two women fell into each other’s arms. “There are hot spots in the wreckage,” said one woman, weeping. “There is no hope.”

Everyone in the room was wrestling with their own tragedy. Even Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist with a private practice who also consults for Wall Street firms, was in mourning for a missing friend, but had volunteered because he wanted to reach out to others. “Therapists aren’t immune,” he said. “The paradox is that the people who are trying to help are deeply affected.”

He had brought a prescription pad, in case anyone needed anti-anxiety drugs or a sleeping pill. “You want to do something, and you know there’s not a whole lot to be done right now,” he said. “Over the coming days and weeks, people are going to need a lot of help. We all need to talk.” As he spoke, his cell phone rang: It was the chairman of another major company, a consulting client, asking Sulkowicz to come in and counsel his staff and make psychiatric referrals.Sulkowicz specializes in executive clients who fancy themselves “masters of the universe.” Until Tuesday, he says, they obsessed over are-my-bonus-and-office-big-enough? Now that world has literally crumbled. “This is going to change people’s perspectives on what they’re doing it for,” he remarked. “People were in denial about how safe their lives were, they had a total sense of invulnerability.”

Written by Meryl Gordon