Even as the markets hit bottom Tuesday about 1:30 p.m. EDT, the crowd standing around computer and TV screens at the

Schwab

(SCH)

Wall Street office was pensive but not panicky.

About two dozen people gathered before the two trading kiosks in the brokerage's front lobby, many of them pedestrians who just walked off the street to watch markets coverage on TV.

"What happened?" asked John Panzone, exchanging theories with another gawker on the big slide right after curbs had been placed on trading at the

New York Stock Exchange

.

"If they want people to panic, they'll see it now," said Panzone, a New Yorker and a self-described "big investor."

"It's crazy. Did anything happen overseas? Did anything happen to the president?"

One woman had stopped at the Schwab office to pick up information on taking her money out of the markets and putting it into "safe investments."

"I'm getting nervous," she said, declining to give her name. Meanwhile, the markets began rebounding from their midday lows. "The big boys, they have the billions to juggle around. When we lose $12,000 in a day, it really hurts."

Even with the impromptu television audience that gathered out front, activity at Schwab's Wall Street office was more or less normal Tuesday, said David Monte, the branch manager.

"That lobby's usually full," he said.

Two blocks away at the

Olde Discount Brokers

office on Broad Street, there were no pedestrians or customers in sight, just a couple of frazzled brokers working the phones and looking grim. "It hasn't been fun," one said, adding that company policy prohibits speaking with the media.

An eighth-grade class from Manhattan's

Booker T. Washington Junior High School

had perfect timing for a visit to the Big Board's trading floor.

"It was down 14 when we came in," said Arnold Lewis, who works for

American Express

(AXP) - Get Report

and was leading the students on their financial field trip. "I think they'll never forget we were here on the day after the

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

decision."