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REGION COPES WITH AFTERMATH OF EVENTS THAT TRAUMATIZED NATION

Bob Bannister of East Aurora stood erect at noon Friday on Main Street downtown next to a flagpole and American flag he had brought to work that day. He handed out a piece of paper to passers-by.

On the paper, side-by-side, were two photos symbolizing American determination in the face of adversity: the famous picture of Marines hoisting the flag on Iwo Jima and a photo of New York City firefighters raising the flag over the rubble at the World Trade Center.

"It's a statement of pride and patriotism for our country and how we all grieve at this moment," he said. "I just wanted to spend my lunch hour making people aware of the gravity of the situation this country is facing."

In the hours immediately after terrorists commandeered four U.S. commercial flights and crashed three of them into pre-eminent symbols of American financial and military power, perhaps the gravity of the attacks was lost in the disorienting swirl of emotions -- disbelief, grief, anger -- that engulfed the country.

But as the week unfolded, the seriousness of what President Bush termed "acts of war" began to sink in as people started to comprehend the significance of what had happened.

Almost immediately, Western New Yorkers got a glimpse of what the new reality will entail. Stung by the surprise, and uncertain about whether the attacks on New York and Washington were only a part of what was intended, the government immediately shut down all airports.

At Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga, the normal hustle and bustle of travelers coming and going steadily evaporated. "There's an eeriness here -- that's the only word I can use," Robert E. Stone, the airport manager, said as he walked through the deserted terminal.

Passengers, including some who had been diverted to Buffalo after the crashes, waited for word of when they would be able to resume or begin their journeys. Some, like Suzanne Weiss of Buffalo, admitted to second thoughts.

"I'm a little scared," said Weiss, who came to the airport Wednesday morning looking for a flight to California. "I have mixed feelings about getting on a plane."

Flights finally began leaving the airport Thursday, although at a significantly slower pace than normal and with the normal connections not necessarily available.

"We were told Pittsburgh was open, and about an hour ago, they said we can't get to Pittsburgh," said Margaret Ford, a frustrated City of Tonawanda resident trying to get to Toledo, Ohio.

Eventually, the schedules and connections might return to what they were before Tuesday, but what isn't likely to change are the increased security measures imposed in the wake of the attack.

The airport parking garage, which is within the new 300-foot security area around the terminal, is closed for the foreseeable future. The days of checking baggage curb-side are over, as are the days of greeting returning loved ones at the gate. Only ticketed passengers will be allowed past the security check-in points.

The bottom line for travelers is that they can expect checking in and boarding airplanes to take much longer than it has. "Arrive, at minimum, two hours in advance," advised C. Douglas Hartmayer, public affairs director for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which operates the airport.

Auto travelers accustomed to relatively unencumbered movement across the four bridges over
the Niagara River between the United States and Canada quickly discovered that those days also are likely over.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, traffic across some of the bridges resembled rush hour in Los Angeles as those in charge of inspecting cars and trucks eliminated the cursory wave-through most local motorists are used to receiving.

Instead, customs agents began checking identifications, in some cases requesting multiple IDs. They took their time peering inside cars and their trunks and, in some cases, thoroughly examined the contents of luggage and shopping bags.

Saturday, Canadian-bound trucks and cars were delayed as long as five hours on the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, according to a report from the Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition. Delays for Canadian-bound traffic on the Peace Bridge ranged from 45 to 60 minutes. At the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls, the delay was about 15 minutes. The coalitions reported no delay in U.S.-bound traffic on any of the three bridges.

Matters improved Sunday, when 30-minute delays were typical at the Peace Bridge, while crossing the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls took five minutes or less.

The Lewiston-Queenston Bridge had five-minute delays into Canada but one-hour delays entering the United States.

The Whirlpool Bridge in the Falls has been closed so that customs agents can remain redeployed to the other bridges.

"People are still going to want to go over to Casino Niagara up here, or bingo and slots in Fort Erie, but they need to keep in mind that it's going to take longer coming in and going back," said Brent Gallagher, director of operations at the Rainbow Bridge.

Immediately after the attack, authorities moved quickly to secure the area around the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston, which is one of the largest power generation complexes in the country.

They closed the project to visitors and temporarily shut parts of the Robert Moses Parkway and Lewiston Road, which both run past the plant.

Among other inconveniences, City Hall in Buffalo was evacuated twice when authorities decided to take no chances when bomb threats were called in to the building. The Metro Transportation Center on Ellicott Street also was closed for a while after a bomb scare. A number of area malls and stores also closed Tuesday afternoon.

Many residents, desperate to hear that loved ones downstate and in Washington were safe, instead got only "busy circuit" messages because of the massive number of calls heading into those areas.

In general, the situation was confusing and uncertain. But thousands of Western New Yorkers also banded together to show support for the victims of the attack and the country as a whole.

Blood donors lined up outside American Red Cross donation areas -- so many that Wednesday night, officials asked would-be donors to sign up on sheets to return the next day. In two days, authorities reported they had collected as much blood as they normally do in a week.

A call from the Erie County Department of Emergency Services for volunteers to head to New York city produced 900 responses in 24 hours, many more than turned out to be needed.

And as the week went on, someone unaware of what had happened would have sworn it was Fourth of July.

Red, white and blue bunting was draped across the front of City Hall, and American flags -- big, small and every size in between -- were everywhere. They flew from car windows and front porches, hung down the sides of buildings and were pinned on people's shirts.

That kind of solidarity will be needed as Western New Yorkers, and all Americans, face a future whose footing is more unstable than it was last Sunday.

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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