In city, a hot election takes back seat to tragedy

New Haven’s hospitals prepared to receive casualties, residents jammed the train station and police were out in force following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

The city in recent weeks had been buzzing about today’s Democratic mayoral primary, but suddenly the importance of the showdown between Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and state Sen. Martin Looney faded.

While New York City’s mayoral primary was cancelled, Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz decided elections here would go on. Campaign managers for both candidates said they expected turnout to be diminished, but added they must go about their jobs, though with heavy hearts.

DeStefano was at the Bella Vista senior housing complex when he heard news of the attack. This morning, he met with administration officials to discuss the situation, said campaign manager Julio Gonzalez ’99.

Looney campaign manager Jason Bartlett said his camp was also shaken up, especially city clerk candidate Katurrah Abdul-Salaam, whose mother was on a plane and daughter was at a military base at the time of the attacks.

All off-duty New Haven police officers and supervisors have been put on routine patrols. Yale police officers have been told to avoid unnecessary functions and to monitor University property. Extra officers were assigned to Tweed-New Haven Airport and government buildings downtown.

Jim Morre, the city’s deputy emergency management director, said the most important potential target in New Haven would be Yale, but added there had been no threats.

Metro-North train service to New York has been suspended, but some train continued to flow into Union Station with passengers from New York. As each train came into the station, new waves of hysteria broke out.

“Every time a train comes in from Grand Central, it’s unbelievable,” said Kevin Regan, an Amtrak manager at Union Station. “I saw one couple — they found each other and just started crying, before they could even get to each other through the crowd.

Amtrak suspended service at 10:30 a.m. — all trains stopped at the closest station.

Officials established a regional command post at the city’s emergency operations center at the Hall of Records. The city will assist with grief counseling in the region and is preparing to receive victims from the New York attack.

A train load of victims had been sent to Bridgeport Hospital earlier today, but chaos erupted there when the city was unprepared to receive them. New Haven and Yale-New Haven Hospital officials are making preparations to prevent a repeat here.

Stamford Hospital has been notified it will receive patients. Yale-New Haven, which has been cordoned off by police, expects it too will receive patients, but officials there have not yet been notified.

The New Haven FBI office and federal building have been evacuated and guards in flak jackets and armed with heavy-duty weapons patrolled their exterior.

Schools, state and city offices remained offices, but courts have been closed for the day.

The scene at Union Station was, at first blush, business as usual, but instead of glancing at the schedule to check times or platforms and then racing down the escalator. Slack-jawed, teary-eyed, and weary, they all watched the same endlessly repeated feeds from CNN — flames, crashes and a message from their president.

And about every 40 minutes new waves of refugees from Manhattan poured into the station.

Doug Falkenberg lives across the street from the World Trade Center and saw the first plane crash.

“I thought that a plane had gone down into the river, but then I saw that it was in flames,” Falkenberg said. “I ran out of the apartment to get my sons out of school. On the way there, I watched the plane hit the second tower.”

Metro-North is running trains from Grand Central to New Haven.

“As soon as they fill them up, they ship them out,” said Regan. “I don’t know when we will resume service. Our main concern is the safety of our customers and the safety of our employees.

“Some people are stranded here in New Haven — there’s no alternate transport. They have nowhere to go — they just have to wait until friends or relatives can find a way to get here and pick them up.”

Station officials have been towing cars from the front of Union Station and established a plastic barricade to keep cars away.

Polling places in Wards 1 and 7 were quiet, with volunteers attributing the low turnout to the disaster.

In Fair Haven, the virtual ground zero of the closely contested election, conversations at sparsely populated polling places focused on national events, not the local election.

At the Atwater Senior Center, the Ward 14 polling place, election workers sat silently in the voting room.

Outside, aldermanic candidates and supporters handed out palm cards to occasional passers-by, while hoping voters later in the day would still come to the polls.

“The events of today are sort of overshadowing the election. It’s kind of surreal,” said aldermanic candidate Kevin Walton, who was dividing his time between greeting voters and trying to reach two family members who worked in the World Trade Center.

Staff Reporters Charlotte Dewar, Arielle Levin Becker, Jamie Collins, Jared Savas and Brian Lee contributed to this report.

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