Ground Zero is not now, never will be empty place’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 10, 2002

“The Sphere” is a steel and bronze monument “to world peace through world trade” by German artist Fritz Koenig that stood as the centerpiece of the World Trade Center Plaza. The 30-year old sculpture was split and crushed by the falling buildings. When found, it was restored as much as possible and moved to nearby Battery Park. (Special to The Vicksburg Post/JAMES BORMANN)

[09/10/02]”Disaster. Tremendous courage. Heartbreak. Loss. Unimaginable shock. These are among the words being spoken throughout the vast regions of New York City.”

A year ago that’s how I began an eyewitness report on the terror attack on the World Trade Center complex. In the last few days, as I revisited Ground Zero, as it has come to be called, and the surrounding makeshift memorials to the dead that have now become permanent, those words could still apply.

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“The Sphere,” a steel and bronze monument “to world peace through world trade” by German artist Fritz Koenig, was the centerpiece of the World Trade Center Plaza. In the falling debris, the 30-year old sculpture was split and crushed. It has been restored, as much as possible, and moved to nearby Battery Park. Six months to the minute after the first plane hit the first tower, it was dedicated as a temporary memorial. Last Friday, as I stood at the sculpture, I couldn’t help but imagine what that hell must have been like and how anyone survived. So many didn’t.

Around me, there were people in deep grief some even in tears. Others were snapping photographs. A few feet away, there were vendors selling hot dogs, pretzels, soda, post cards, photos of the towers, sparkling pins of the American flag and T-shirts and caps printed with the logos of the fire, police and emergency departments.

The scene was the same at historic St. Paul’s Church, with its cemetery of faded tombstones just across the street from Ground Zero.

These sites, like so much of New York City, have sadly become just another tourist site.

It’s quite sad that carnival-like atmospheres have been allowed to blossom. The vendors should be banned so these can be places of remembrance and solitude.

Even as a tourist attraction, Ground Zero is not very satisfying to some visitors, who wait in long lines to observe it from viewing areas overlooking the 16-acre site. As a man emerged from a platform with his family, he exclaimed, “I don’t know what there was to see! It’s just a huge, deep hole!”

Was the devastation supposed to be frozen in time so he could experience it? Did he not realize that nearly a year has passed and we have to, so to speak, pick up the pieces and begin anew to show the world our resolve and strength of character? And did he not realize that even now that the site is cleared of the debris of the twisted steel of those collapsed, combined 220 floors, it is more than a missing New York City landmark? That it’s more than a gigantic excavation pit? That it’s more than a “huge, deep hole”?

To the families who never saw their loved ones again, it’s sacred ground a place of burial.

St. Paul’s Church dates to 1766 and was attended by George Washington as well as hundreds of other colonials. Amazingly, it didn’t suffer any structural damage from the collapsing towers. It immediately became a refuge providing food and rest for the thousands of firefighters, police and emergency workers. As soon as the public had access to the area, the fences surrounding the block the church is situated on became a place for memorials. How anyone can view these signs of sympathy, flags from various fire companies and police departments, flowers, leis from Hawaii, votive candles, countless Teddy bears and the notes of loss from loved ones and photos of lost loved ones and not be moved boggles the mind.

The impact of the loss is felt most when reading the poems and prayers. One that particularly struck me was left in December by Lynn Hayes. It begins:

“Please respect my mother.

She is buried there somewhere.

And please respect my father.

He vanished into thin air”

That last line reminded me of the scene late in the afternoon of Sept. 11 when I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital, the downtown trauma center best equipped to handle tragedies of the proportion we experienced, and saw lines of volunteer blood donors and untold numbers of doctors, nurses and emergency workers with empty gurneys. They were awaiting ambulances bringing the injured. When those ambulances never arrived, you knew the depth of the death toll. It was a miracle that anyone survived the twin infernos of jet fuel and the collapse of hundreds of floors one upon the other.

It’s been a tough year for New York City. Full recovery is a long way off. It seems every aspect of our life has not only changed but also been deeply affected.

There are no words that can describe the pain and suffering of loved ones lost, and it is very hard to find someone who’s not been affected by at least a friend or acquaintance lost in the tragedy. The news has fully noted the loss of tourism in New York and the countrywide financial repercussions of Sept. 11. But we know that a nation as strong as ours will somehow bring about a turnaround.

What is still most puzzling is why such acts were committed. How could those labeled as terrorists live in the United States, get to know our people many of whom have backgrounds similar to theirs and still commit such dastardly deeds?

As one of Middle Eastern background, I am puzzled by the constant cycle of bloodshed and terror in the Middle East. If we, with all our religious and cultural differences, can live side by side, why can’t they? I know the United States is Israel’s strongest supporter, but I’ve always felt that we are the best friend all the factions in the Middle East have. If any country can help generate long-term peace there, it’s the United States.

The impact here can’t be forgotten. All of us have, no doubt, looked inside ourselves and asked why we were spared when so many other innocents were not. It is still very difficult to look at the downtown skyline and realize those towering twins are gone.

It was incredible to see how New York City came together with care and compassion everywhere in those hours of tragedy and it’s more than a little sad to see that camaraderie gradually dissipating.

The tales of bravery and enormous sacrifices by our police, firefighters and rescue teams won’t soon be forgotten. But no matter the healing powers of a strong people, there’ll always be a void.

When I ponder the loss of life, I am drawn to some of the most poignant lines of literature I’ve read, the ending of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I’ve adapted it here as a small remembrance of those who left their homes the morning of September 11th, 2001, and never returned:

” They had no dreams of being praised above others, feeling that there was always something better which they might have done, if they had only been better and known better So, now, we insignificant people reflect with our daily words the ardent deeds that shaped their lives and recall the love and sacrifices they made Their full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of their being on those around them was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts. That things are not so ill with you and me as they might be is half owing to the number of persons who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Of course, their many acts of courage and bravery were historic. Their “tomb” will be visited and revisited for years to come.