Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The 9/11 Memorial

Here it is, the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an event which, every year, seems like it happened just yesterday.

As it happens, just the day before yesterday, my sister, nephew and I flew home following a week's vacation in New York City. One of the last images I saw before our flight rose above the clouds was that of "Freedom Tower", otherwise known as "One World Trade Center". It will always be "Freedom Tower" to me.

The last time my sister and I were in NYC was in the summer of 2005. All that existed at Ground Zero was a pit, and a residual piece of metal in the form of a Cross.


Today, though, things are different. Very different. A gleaming, towering edifice now stands where rubble fell before. But, some things never change, one being the sublime sadness that one cannot escape when visiting this site.

When we, my sister and I, were there eight years ago, there was a chain link fence separating us from that pit. Along this fence, for the length of a New York City block, was a storyboard detailing the timeline of the events of that horrific day. There were others listing each and every name of those who died that day in New York, Washington DC and Shanksville, PA.

One section of the storyboard.
The names. Notice the 'IX XI' in large grey lettering, behind the names; Roman numerals for 9 11.

Today, that fence is gone, and so is the storyboard. There are buildings there now that were merely a figment of someone's imagination at that time, now realities.

And now, there is the 9/11 Memorial.

Love 'em or not, no one can deny that the Yanks know how to do things in style, be it Broadway shows, or New Year's Eve in Times Square, or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. They do not do 'small'.

But even they, who epitomize big and brassy, knew how to do this Memorial just right, and by God, they did a masterful job.

Subtle, respectful, solemn, reflective, and inclusive, to list just a few adjectives that do not do it justice.

Pools now occupy the footprints of the two towers. They call them 'pools', when in actual fact they are more like square waterfalls that fall 30 feet, and then the water flows into smaller, square 'wells', the bottoms of which are not visible.

It is absolutely poetic, but I just cannot find the words to express its poetry. Maybe this videoclip can convey it for me:

The sun dances on the falling water, and rainbows appear. There is a terrific roar from the falling water; the roar of planes from the past, or the angst of too-soon departed souls, perhaps?

But the most startling and sublime feature is the names. The seemingly endless rows of names. Some common names, like Harris, others of some foreign ethnicity, but belonging to proud Americans nonetheless. But not all were Americans. Many who died that day were from countries far and wide, there for peaceful reasons, trying to make a living and raise families, no doubt.

Then, as my sister and I were looking at the names, something caught our eyes, and caught in my throat - the names of women followed by the words "... and her unborn child." Oh my.

I cannot express adequately how... hmm..."happy" is not the word... how comforting I found this, that these tiny victims have been remembered, and will be remembered, forever. How perfect a decision that was, and how apt the wording. "Unborn child". That sat very, very well with me. Not that it was a political statement... this was no place for that. It's just that this is what those little ones were, no more, but certainly no less, and they are mourned as much as anyone else honored there.

So we walked on, and I ran my hand over countless names of people unknown to me in any way. The predominant thought that kept going over and over in my mind was that each and every one of these people did nothing more than go to work that morning, trying to make a life for themselves and their families, and THIS was the fate they met. They just got up, got dressed and went to work. They were as average as you and me. Some were well-known: David Angell, a producer of "Frasier" and Barbara Olson, a political commentator on CNN. The vast majority, though, were just 'ordinary Joes', getting on with their lives. And this was to be their fate.

Some became famous after the fact - Mark Bingham, Todd Beamer and Tom Burnett, who were among those who led the charge against the hijackers on the flight that crashed in Shanksville, instead of probably into the White House. Obscure in life, true American heroes in death.

Mark Bingham's place at the Memorial
Tom Burnett, second line from top, and Todd Beamer, on the bottom row.
And now, their names are there along with the thousands of others, along the margins of the North and South Pools, next to financiers and waiters, CEOs and janitors, all of whom should not be dead, or at least should not have died on that day.

Those who designed the Memorial Pools did so in such a way as to make it very easy for family, friends and others to find specific names. There is a chart which illustrates a color code along the margins of each pool, so that all those on each of the four flights, those at the Pentagon, those in Shanksville, those in the two WTC towers and the First Responders, and even those who died in the WTC attacks of 1993, their names are all grouped together. One can see JUST HOW MANY died in each tower, and what shocked me was just how many First Responders died that day.

One First Responder in particular that I remember from that day was Fr. Mychal Judge, a Roman Catholic priest and a Chaplain for the Fire Department of New York. He died at the scene of the disaster when the first tower fell. His body was found by firefighters, who were aided by a paramedic and a bystander in carrying him from the scene to nearby St. Peter's Church, where his body was laid upon the altar there. He was subsequently designated Victim #0001, not because he was the first to die, which he was not, but because he was the first confirmed and identified casualty of the terror attacks that day.

Purely by coincidence, our hotel in Manhattan was located at West 31st St. and 7th Ave.,  at the place where a section of West 31st St. was renamed in his honor.

And, again by coincidence, on the day that we were heading out to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, we happened to pass by St. Peter's Church just as their annual "Walk of Remembrance" for Fr. Judge was concluding.

Being a Catholic, (although it was a non-denominational event), I was pleased to be there on one hand, but on the other hand, I felt as if I was an intruder. There were people there who were directly and intimately affected by the losses of that day, in ways I can only imagine. All I could offer was a silent prayer, and hope that it was enough to earn me the right to be there, in body and in spirit.

As if there weren't enough moments to awe you at the 9/11 Memorial, here was the one that nearly brought me to my knees...

As we walked around each pool, looking at names, thinking and reflecting, my sister and I both noticed two names that had yellow roses placed in them. The names are not just etched into the steel. They actually penetrate the steel, so that the light from the pools, when lit at night, shine up through them, making them visible at all times. So, there were these two names, with the stems of the single roses inserted into the letters of the names. We both just assumed that a loved one had been there earlier and left them. I photographed one of them, appreciating the touching gesture.

...and then, we saw this sign...

Well, that sign just about did us both in. We just had to walk away from it, and from each other, in order to regain our composure. After being strong while viewing all the subtle drama of the footprint pools, and the names, and the stories we remembered, it was two simple yellow roses, commemorating birthdays, that just got us. Heartbreaking, touching and so very, very sad.

But from the rubble, comes a small twig of life. When the rescue crews were searching for victims, they came across a small pear tree, which had been ravaged by the collapsing towers. The tree was crushed down to only about four feet in height. It was retrieved from the site and sent to a nursery where it was tended and cared for, and now it has been replanted at the site, among dozens and dozens of oak trees. It is now called "The Survivor Tree", and is a focal point at the Memorial.

The Survivor Tree
So, that's the story of our visit just four days ago to a place no longer called "Ground Zero", but now called the 9/11 Memorial. Freedom Tower looks down upon the physical and psychic healing of the hundreds if not thousands who pass by there every day in homage to the aftermath of a world gone crazy, yet its very stature is a salute to the resilience and patriotism of a citizenry much tested throughout its existence, but certainly tested on that day.

On this, the twelfth anniversary, what more can anyone say but "God bless America."



  1. Margaret what can I say... You said it all so beautifully very toughing I felt I was visiting the site with you and your sister.. Thanks Roisin

    1. Roisin, thanks very much. I'm glad you felt you were there with us. It is an experience I wish everyone could share. An amazing, sad, inspiring place.


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