Posted: Aug. 30, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

At the hotel where the Delaware Republicans are staying in New York City, they look up at the sky to see what is not there. 

They are at the doorstep of the World Trade Center site, where the unimaginable destruction of the titanic twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, took this jostling, brash, around-the-clock city and locked it in a time and place forever, flash-freezing the calendar with a date as unforgettable as July the Fourth. 

The Delawareans are staying in lower Manhattan at the aptly named Millenium Hilton. Despite all the hoopla of New Year’s Day 2000, the millenium truly began on Sept. 11, a day that drew a dark line between the hopes and worries of the 20th Century and the 21st

Everything was different, and the starkest symbol of it was the crumbled towers, more lasting than the crippled Pentagon in Washington, more physically visible than the heroism of the Americans who went down in Pennsylvania. 

The Delawareans came to this hotel because this is the reason the Republican national convention came here. 

“We had some choices in hotels. When the Millenium became available, I thought it was a great honor,” said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the national committeewoman who sits on the convention’s Committee on Arrangements and chose the location. “The terrible tragedy on 9-11 changed the Bush presidency, changed America and changed all of our lives.” 

The front of the hotel faces the gash in the New York skyline. What was once called “The Pile” is now a vast construction pit, waiting for new buildings to rise, once New York gets through with the dickering and bickering that is as much a signature of this city as a Broadway show. 

Out of the high-rise windows overlooking the pit, there is a beautiful vista of the Hudson River, although it is impossible to see it without remembering yearningly that once upon a time, this view was blocked. 

“I don’t come to New York that I don’t think about it,” said U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware’s ranking Republican who toured Ground Zero on Sept. 18, a week after the attack to see for himself. 

The hotel is next to St. Paul’s Chapel, which was here for the birth of the Republic and survived on Sept. 11 to be transformed for nine months into a place of refuge for the rescue workers at The Pile. The sanctuary where George Washington went on his Inauguration Day still is draped with the huge homemade banners sent in an outpouring of sympathy from all across the country. 

There is a special memorial at the pew that Washington used when New York was the nation’s capital from 1789 until it moved to Philadelphia in 1790 for 10 years. After Sept. 11 the pew became a place where the workers could have their injured feet treated, and a sign says: 

“Because many of Washington’s troops fought at Valley Forge without boots, many saw placing the podiatry station in this pew as a fitting tribute.” 

The security at the hotel is serious but not overbearing. There are New York police officers outside, and people entering are asked by hotel security to display convention credentials or room keys or else give the name of a guest being visited for verification.

Throughout the city, “security” is an umbrella term encompassing both terrorism and demonstrations. Police forces are everywhere that the convention-goers are, but these are New York cops, so they have seen everything, and they display an instinct for what to deal with and what to let go. 

Terrorism may be in the back of the mind, but the demonstrations so far are pure spectacle – bell ringers who want to “ring out the Republicans,” pamphleteers with their tracts asking, “What if you had been here?” on Sept. 11 and urging recipients to take Jesus Christ as the savior, masses of marchers with signs saying, “I {heart} pro-choice NY.”

Security is infusing everything the Delaware Republicans are doing, but no one seems to mind, and there is a good chance, if all goes right, it could work to New York’s advantage. 

When the Democrats held their convention here in 1992 to nominate Bill Clinton, delegates came with a case of nerves, fretting about whether the city was safe from crime. The Delawareans had a hotel on Central Park and wondered whether it was wise to venture there or even to walk the streets. 

That convention did a lot to dispel the doubts, and now everyone wants to go to Central Park. This convention could do the same for fears of terrorism, and it may be. 

“We feel very safe on the streets. They’ve done a nice job here in the city, organizing their security forces. It’s been wonderful. It gives us a safe feeling,” said Phyllis M. Byrne, a delegate who is the Sussex County Republican chairwoman. 

The Delawareans spent Sunday on pre-convention activities, taking in “Bombay Dreams,” a show on Broadway, and returning to the hotel for a welcome dinner sponsored by Comcast. The state of the city was a constant. 

After the show, the Delawareans and the rest of the theater-goers were held inside for about 10 minutes while police cleared away some protesters, but it only seemed to add to the convention experience. 

State Vice Chairman John R. Matlusky, who is also the incoming national committeeman, said the Republicans got into the spirit of things, answering the chant of “four more months!” they heard from the street with their own of “four more years!” 

Timothy J. Houseal, an alternate from Wilmington was charmed by it all. “I want to see more. This is democracy. It’s a beautiful thing. They get to protest in Iraq now, too,” he said. 

At dinner the Delawareans were reminded again what the price of democracy has been. They heard a short talk from Stuart Yule, the hotel’s director of security. He had 20 years on the New York Police Department and another 23 years in hotel security, and he was working on Sept. 11. 

Yule also was on duty in 1993 on the day of the explosion in the World Trade Center’s parking garage. The ground trembled a little, and the lights flickered. On the morning of Sept. 11, the same thing happened as the first plane hit, and Yule hoped it was not what he thought it was, but of course, it was. 

Outside he looked up and thought he saw debris falling. It was people jumping. After the second plane zoned in, the hotel was evacuated. Yule was one of perhaps five or 10 people still on the premises when the first tower fell. 

“I’ve seen a lot of things in my life, but it was so surreal, it’s all I can tell you,” Yule said. “To be honest with you, I saw my life pass in front of me.” 

The hotel was closed for 18 months to be refurbished and cleansed of all the poisonous debris that blew and billowed through it. About 90 percent of the workers returned. 

“We have the third anniversary coming up,” Yule said. “A lot of them want to take the day off. They don’t want to be here.”