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By Martin Wolk Business editor
msnbc.com
updated 9/8/2006 9:26:54 AM ET 2006-09-08T13:26:54

Maybe in a small Kansas town, what John Roccosalva did would not have been a big deal. But in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, it seemed extraordinary.

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What Roccosalva did that day was invite people in to his Greenwich Village apartment to use the telephone — dozens of people, maybe 100, people who otherwise would have had no way to get in touch with their loved ones and let them know they were safe. Cell phone service was spotty at best. Long lines snaked away from the few available pay phones.

And Roccosalva kept going downstairs and asking more people to come inside and use the apartment, located about two miles north of the spot that came to be known as Ground Zero.

I was one of those people, and having lived in New York for five years it went against my every instinct to follow a stranger into his apartment building. But once I got inside and sat down to have a glass of water, I began to comprehend the enormity of what had happened to me, having just escaped from the ground floor of the World Trade Center two hours earlier. I also felt the deep warmth of human kindness.

Looking around at others who found themselves in the second-floor apartment, I suddenly felt I was a part of a community of refugees, and Roccosalva’s generosity began to turn things around for me, helping to restore my faith in humanity.

“It was a little gesture, but I guess in its own way it made a difference for some people,” he said when I interviewed him last month, nearly five years later.

No television or radio
To say the apartment was small is being extravagant. In the flat's single room was barely enough space for a twin-size bed, a table with three chairs, a tiny stove and a dorm-sized refrigerator. The walls were white and virtually bare except for a few shelves of books. No television, not even a radio.

Yet the plank floors were impeccable, the bed spare and clean. The whole room had a calming effect of a monk’s quiet retreat.

“I could have had Rembrandts on the wall. The fact that I didn’t have anything like that didn’t make a difference,” said Roccosalva, 55, a Cleveland native who has lived in the space for most of the past 30 years. “What I did have to offer was just a safe place to be for a few minutes, for people to touch base with people that they lost touch with."

Opening his apartment to the masses also was therapeutic for Roccosalva. Early in the morning he had seen the first plane “sticking out of” the north tower, as he put it, and he did not know what to do, or even think. At first, he and a friend told each other that it must be a scene being filmed for a movie.

Then they went to breakfast, and Roccosalva overheard someone frantically trying to use the telephone. “I live right around here,” said Roccosalva. “Why don’t you come over and use my phone?”

At the time, Roccosalva was unemployed, having been laid off from his job of arranging window displays.

“Part of it was I did not know what to do with myself, and it gave me a project. It gave me something to kind of not think about what I had just seen. I was able to give people something and they were able to give me company. ... I felt very alone. So it did benefit me as well.”

A huge phone bill is paid
It was only late in the day, when large groups began coming in to use his phone, that he realized he would face a huge phone bill. To this day, he doesn’t remember how big it was, but it was big enough that relatives decided to pitch in and pay it for him.

Today Roccosalva, who declined to be photographed, is working as a florist. He still has no television or radio, but he pays a bit more attention to world events.

"I always thought of New York City as being the center of the universe," he said. "It still may be the center of the universe, but the universe is somewhat smaller than it was before that happened."

And five years later, Roccosalva has never gone back to the site of the former World Trade Center. And on the few occasions when he has driven by in a friend’s car, he has looked the other way.

“Part of it may be denial, I don’t know. But I also didn’t feel like I needed anything as a reminder because I knew I would never forget, and I haven't forgotten. The experience is pretty vivid for me right now.”

Martin Wolk is MSNBC.com's business editor.

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