Sunday, September 13, 2009
A Visit To Ground Zero: A Personal Story of New York After 9/11.
This past Friday was the 8th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The images of the Pentagon, Shanksville, Pennsylvania and, of course, the devastated towers of The World Trade Center in New York City will remain with all Americans forever. But, for those of us who actually experienced the sights, sounds and smells of the aftermath of the attacks in New York, the memories are somewhat different. In remembrance of the the attacks of 9/11 I want to share with you the letter I wrote to friends and family after visting "ground zero" on November 4, 2001, just six short weeks after that horrible day.
My wife and I just returned from New York. We went there to cheer on and support our oldest daughter who ran in and completed the New York City Marathon last Sunday. We arrived on Saturday, staying at the Hilton on Avenue of the Americas in mid-town Manhattan. And even though we have been there many times, we still spent most of Saturday walking around 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Plaza and, of course, Times Square.
Sunday was dedicated to the Marathon and our daughter's participation in it. And let me tell you, the New Yorkers were incredible! They cheered the runners enthusiastically exhorting them to “hang-in-there” and “keep going” just as though every runner was a member of their own family. And they did this not only for the elite runners at the front of the pack but for the average runners and stragglers alike—from the 11:00 AM start until the dark early hours of the evening.
On Monday, we went to the Empire State Building and spent an hour on the newly re-opened 86th floor observation deck braving the wind and enjoying the views. Then we went to “ground zero.”
It’s hard to describe what it’s like there. “Awe” is the word that comes to mind first— ‘awe’-some, ‘awe’-inspiring, ‘awe’-full. In fact, the experience borders on sensory overload—sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are all challenged by the remains and aftermath of September 11, 2001, just a scant 6 weeks ago.
The “sight” of the charred buildings blackened by the fires and twisted into unsolvable puzzles of iron and steel by the explosions hits you first. Then, as your eyes survey the scene, you are forced to stop and dwell on the hose cranes still pouring water on the yet burning fires below and the clouds of steam and ash continuing to rise from what must be, tragically, the world’s largest and most active crematorium. At that venue, it is relatively quiet with only the sounds of traffic on the streets behind you and the faint rumble of heavy equipment in front of you. From the scattered clumps of astonished bystanders, there is no audible sound.
Just fifty yards or so farther south down the sidewalk is a Catholic church that was blackened on 9-11 but otherwise undamaged. It is still the feeding station and contemplative refuge for the workers at ‘ground zero.’ And along the 8-foot high wrought-iron fence that runs the length of the block in front of the church are thousands of ‘memorials’ left by people from all over the world. Banners, cards, floral arrangements, stuffed animals, posters of missing loved ones and messages of support, sympathy and encouragement in hundreds of languages are affixed to almost every square foot of that fence. As you stand there taking it in, you slowly become aware of the cacophony of languages being spoken around you as people seek to find just a little space to leave one more flower or write one more message of support— “for your country from my country”—as one man said to me. There is also something deeply spiritual and maybe even ‘religious’ about this particular aspect of the ‘ground zero’ experience.
In Genesis, Chapter 11, the story of the “Tower of Babel” is told. In it, the descendents of Shem BUILD a ‘tower unto heaven’ but the motives for building the tower are displeasing to God so He “confounds” their language. Thus the workers, unable to communicate with one another, abandon the CONSTRUCTION of the tower and disperse themselves throughout the world. How strange it is that the DESTRUCTION of the World Trade Center Towers has brought people from all over the world to convene at this spot in front of a church and that no matter what tongue they speak the message seems clear and somehow the language is not “confounded.”
Farther down the street, the ‘entrepreneurs’ are at work. In whatever manner and on whatever medium the ‘Stars and Stripes’ can be replicated, you will find it for sale by an immigrant street vendor. On pins. On jackets. On caps. On glasses, cards, posters and photos, old bricks, wooden planks—anything anyone can deem as tasteful or tasteless—everywhere you turn is an image of “Old Glory.” There is no excuse for failing to find your own desired way of displaying your “patriotism.” And then there are the scammers and schemers. Con-artists all, looking to find a way to get you to put cash in their buckets for “the victim’s families, you know.”
But above all, there is the ash. It coats every surface and grinds its way into every opening. It stings your eyes. It crunches between your teeth and crackles under your shoes. It drifts along with the wind and brings with it the underlying and faint but unmistakable scent and taste of decay and death. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
These 15 square city blocks comprise truly hallowed ground. Don’t let anyone ever tell you it’s not.
November 5, 2001