09/18/2001 11:00PM

A near miss on Wall Street

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CARLSBAD, Calif. - "The bridge seemed to be among the things that last forever; it was unthinkable that it should break. The moment a Peruvian heard of the accident he signed himself and made a mental calculation as to how recently he had crossed by it and how soon he had intended crossing by it again. People wandered about in a trance-like state, muttering; they had the hallucination of seeing themselves falling into a gulf."

It has been 74 years since the publication of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," in which Thornton Wilder offered his timeless fable of fate and predestination. Five people fell into the chasm when the ancient bridge snapped, a number hardly worth comparing to the thousands of victims buried beneath the twin towers of New York City. But the question posed by Wilder's narrator remains valid, no matter what the toll of death:

"Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan."

Right now, Linda McBurney will take either one. She counts herself among the lucky and the blessed, those hundreds of individuals who were only a cup of coffee, a broken shoelace, or a dawdle at a store window away from being crushed in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

McBurney, 42, works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. She is a trader, one of those hot-wired dervishes who execute buy and sell orders faster than McDonald's makes fries. Turmoil is a way of life.

McBurney also has another foot planted firmly in the more serene world of horse racing. Her husband, Pat McBurney, is well known in Eastern circles as the top assistant in the John Forbes stable. Linda exercised horses for 15 years and even flirted with a career as a jockey. When she goes home at night, it is not to an uptown condo, but across the Hudson River to the New Jersey countryside, where she unwinds with a ride on her reliable old Thoroughbred, Sovereign Song.

On the morning of Sept. 11, McBurney parked in her usual spot at the depot in Red Bank and hopped the commuter to Newark. There she caught the PATH train to the World Trade Center. On her walk upstairs, through the vast maze of shops, a wreath caught her eye on display in Crabtree & Evelyn. She paused and made a mental note to maybe buy it later. That was a little past 8:30 a.m.

By that time, the terrorists in control of American Airlines flight 11 from Boston were making their loop over northern New Jersey and were beginning to align the Boeing 767 to attack the North Tower. On the ground, McBurney emerged from the underground world of the Trade Center into the daylight of Liberty Street.

"It's a great little walk," she said. "When I get out to the street I always look up. I saw it was a crystal clear blue sky, a great day."

McBurney cut through a corner park and headed down Broadway, past Trinity Church and the intersection of Wall Street, to the entrance of the New York Stock Exchange. She donned her floor jacket and her broker badge, strapped on her beeper, and swapped her dress pumps for a pair of high speed Reeboks. It was almost 8:45.

"We heard a rumbling," she said, "and we weren't sure, because there's a lot of construction going on around there. Then CNN said the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane, and people started coming in off the street, right behind me, covered with soot, debris, balls of asbestos. They were describing it as a war zone."

McBurney began to gather her belongings. She left her Reeboks on. Smart move. At 9:03 the second jet hit the South Tower on the side nearest Wall Street and the Stock Exchange. "It was the loudest thing I've ever heard," McBurney said. "I thought it was the top of the other tower coming off."

Pat Diggins, McBurney's boss at KV Executions, told her to gather the staff and head for the wharf. They scrambled down Wall Street, under a steady rain of flaming debris, and boarded a New Jersey ferry at Pier 11. To the east rose Brooklyn Heights, ahead of them Governor's Island, and beyond that Upper New York Bay and the Statue of Liberty. It was approaching 9:50.

"I was surprised the boat was only three-quarters full," McBurney said.

"As we pulled off, we were standing at the back. The towers were still very visible. We were watching...and that's when the first building fell down."

McBurney's voice softened. It was hard to find the words, to describe the unthinkable as an actual eyewitness. Even from afar, atrocities are difficult to fathom. But imagine, in your darkest nightmares, having a front row seat to so much death and destruction. Imagine having the images forever imprinted upon the mind.

"I start trembling every time I talk about it," McBurney said.

Then she apologized.

"Making it to the wharf, I consider myself a lot more lucky than smart," she said. "There are so many more exciting stories of escape and chance.

"I heard about a girl on her first day at work at one of the firms that got badly hit. Somebody came up to her with a wad of cash and said she was low man on the totem pole, she had to go to Starbucks for the coffee run. It saved her life."

When McBurney got home to Fair Haven, she was greeted by Barney, her yellow Labrador. As soon as she could, she was on horseback.

"After riding horses in the morning for 15 years without getting hurt real bad, I've got to think I was really, really lucky," McBurney said.

"After last Tuesday, maybe I had the rest of my luck."