Face to face with Ground Zero

Our well-traveled writer finally visits the haunting grounds of the World Trade Center, and previews the memorials now rising there.

Crosscut archive image.

Lady Liberty: covered torch to toe

Our well-traveled writer finally visits the haunting grounds of the World Trade Center, and previews the memorials now rising there.

My son moved to New York City several years after 9/11. He lived there until 2009, but during all my visits, I never ventured down to Ground Zero. It was still too fresh, too new, too raw. It was not on my bucket list of New York things to do.

I was among the 95 percent of Americans who remember where they were when they first learned of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. After waking up shortly after 6 am on that Tuesday morning, I did my usual morning routine of making a latte and checking my emails. And there it was at the top of my in box, with the subject line CNN BREAKING NEWS. I ran back to the kitchen, turned on the TV, and for too many days was riveted by the devastating images that horrified people around the world.

Oddly enough, I'd never visited the World Trade Center prior to the attacks. The seven buildings, which opened in 1973 in Lower Manhattan, spread out across 16 acres. They weren’t tops on my list of places to see. Maybe it was the thought of 50,000 people working in one place that kept me away. Or that it would always be there, so what’s the rush? And I was never big on eating in restaurants that reached for the sky, such as Windows on the World, located on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower.

The closest I got to anything 9/11 related was while walking in the East Village, five years after 9/11. There at 44 Great Jones Street was New York City Fire Department Engine Company #33. Housed in a beautiful 1898 Beaux Arts-style building designed by Ernest Flagg & WB Chambers, this was the company that lost 10 of its 14 firefighters who responded to the World Trade Center on 9/11. When I passed by it again, I crossed my heart.

The winter of 2010 was the last time I was in New York City. It was a cold and snowy January evening when I checked into my room at the newly opened Club Quarters, World Trade Center. Looking out my hotel window, it was eerie seeing Ground Zero for the first time, filled with construction cranes and work lights. The next morning, I walked around the perimeter where One World Trade Center was taking shape, along with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Rehabilitation was underway, in the physical sense.

The memorial component of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center (9/11 Memorial & Museum) will be dedicated on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 on September 11, 2011 in a ceremony for the victims' families. The memorial opens to the general public the following day, September 12, for visitors who have reserved advance passes.The museum isn’t scheduled to open until September 2012.

During my winter visit, I stopped by the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site,located across the street from the 9/11 Memorial and WTC redevelopment. It will remain open while the museum is under construction, and is well worth the stop. The preview site has pieces from the 9/11 Memorial & Museum's permanent collection, including "Lady Liberty." This fiberglass Statue of Liberty stood guard outside the firehouse of Engine 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9, which lost 15 men in the World Trade Center on 9/11. For weeks and months following the terrorist attacks, messages and tributes were posted on her, along with flowers, food, and other items that piled up on the sidewalk. "Lady Liberty" is now covered from "torch to toe" with uniform patches, mini-American flags, money, holy cards, rosaries, notes, postcards, figurines, and other mementos left by caring passersby. The unique memorial was eventually donated to the permanent collection of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in memory of the firefighters who lost their lives.

I didn’t stop by the nearby Tribute WTC Visitor Center, a program of the September 11th Families' Association. Exhibits include artifacts, images, an interactive timeline, and a poignant film. It’s a place to connect with people from the 9/11 community — guided tours around the perimeter of the World Trade Center site are given by people whose lives were impacted by 9/11.


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