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Sept. 11 survivors find comfort at Boro Hall

For the first time since Sept. 11, Abdul Gaffoor had reason to smile last Thursday.

The Ozone Park resident, who worked in the banquet services department at Windows on the World but was on vacation the day of the terrorist attacks, was happy to pick up a paycheck at the victims’ center at Borough Hall in Kew Gardens.

Although pleased to receive the financial help, Gaffoor was overwhelmed when he saw some of his co-workers doing the same thing. As he talked to colleagues from Windows on the World in the waiting area outside the Queens victims’ center set up by Borough President Claire Shulman and Queens District Attorney Robert Brown, Gaffoor’s eyes watered over.

“I’m seeing them for the first time,” he said.

Among the missing in the rubble of World Trade Center Tower 1 are 79 of Gaffoor’s Windows on the World co-workers, including 45 of his Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ Union, Local 100 comrades.

Gaffoor was among the more the 750 people who traveled to Borough Hall in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks to seek assistance from representatives of the borough president, the district attorney and relief organizations.

The Borough Hall center, run by Safe Horizons, a victims’ assistance group, opened Sept. 17 and will operate indefinitely, according to Shulman. It offers many of the same services as the central facility at Pier 94 in Manhattan, providing assistance to displaced workers and residents and family members of missing persons.

Angie Wang, the center’s director, said displaced workers are entitled to “two weeks’ worth of earnings.”

Staff from the district attorney’s office began to process requests last week for death certificates, a necessary step for victims’ family members to begin receiving various benefits, Wang said.

Gaffoor, who has to support two children despite losing his job, said the center helped get his feet on the ground. “I can say they’re doing a wonderful job here,” he said. “This relief they’re giving people, many may not say it, but it’s a big help financially.”

Gaffoor said he received a check for two weeks’ pay. “You don’t know how happy I am to receive this,” he said.

Philip Lau, of Ridgewood, was a packer in a restaurant on the concourse level of the World Trade Center for the last 11 years. He was on his way to work when Tower 2 collapsed. He said the Queens center helped him keep up with his monthly bills. “They’re helping a lot, from paying bills to emergency relief funds,” he said.

The staff at the center also helped him to receive unemployment benefits in a timely fashion, he said, noting that those funds have been particularly helpful since he has had difficulty finding a new job.

“I’m working my way to looking for a job,” he said. “It’s hard. A lot of people are not hiring.”

Audrey from Queens Village, who would not give her last name, worked three blocks from the Twin Towers and has been out of work since the attacks. She came to the victims’ center to “see what benefits” she was entitled to. “Whatever they give to me is a help,” she said.

Despite receiving two weeks’ pay, Gaffoor said he was still struggling to survive. “I’m walking around with a list of 200 jobs I printed off the Internet,” he said. “I went to Macy’s yesterday.”

Without a new job, Gaffoor is finding strength in the support of other surviving workers. As tears welled up in his eyes, he spoke in Spanish to a co-worker he was seeing for the first time in the center’s waiting area. He wrote down his colleague’s phone number, anxious to maintain any connection he could with the job he loved.

For now, the love of the survivors sustains him. “I’ve never had so many hugs in my life,” he said. “We’re thankful to be alive.”

Reach Reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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