In every generation, there seems to be a "what were you doing when you heard?" moment where one traumatic memory is shared by countless people. For those of a certain age, the question used to be "What were you doing when you heard that President Kennedy was assassinated?" (or Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, etc).
But that all changed on September 11, 2001.
In my case, hearing about the tragedy occurred after I had just come to work at Millbrook Correctional Centre near Peterborough, Ontario where I was working as a staff psychologist. A guard somberly told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and a television in a back squad room was tuned to CNN. We all watched in horror as events unfoled when the second plane hit and the World Trade Centre eventually collapsed completely. Further news about the Pentagon crash, Flight Eleven, and the actual circumstances of the hijackings trickled in. The Internet seemed completely frozen at times due to constant crashing as millions of people tried to log in for details.
In the months that followed, things slowly settled down although the enormity of what had happened seemed impossible to accept. The violent deaths of thousands of Americans seemed surreal enough. That this would eventually lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people across Afghanistan and Iraq and bog Western nations down into a war that may never end acts as a continuing reminder how the world changed that terrible day.
Naturally enough, my visiting New York for the first time in twenty years made it essential that I add Ground Zero to my itinerary. After arranging for a visitor pass online (no entering the monument site itself without authorization), I arrived at the site of the new One World Trade Center in plenty of time for the tour. Even before my tour bus arrived, I could see one vivid memorial along the way, Tiles For America at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Eleventh Street. With thousands of ceramic tiles along a chain-link fence contributed by ceramic studios around the world, the memorial provides a shared memories of the victims that has already been featured in music videos and films.
Finding Ground Zero itself was certainly no problem with the still-uncompleted lead building (a.k.a. 1 WTC or the Freedom Tower seen to the right) dominating the local skyline. Still, it's the relatively tiny St. Paul's Chapel at 209 Broadway that is the usual starting point for most Ground Zero pilgrimages. The 238 year-old Episcopalian chapel was already a prominent part of New York's history since George Washington worshipped there on his inauguration day in 1789. The chapel took on a new importance when it acted as a sanctuary for the
thousands of volunteers, emergency services workers, and family members of victims immediately after the 2001 attack. For months afterwards, rescue workers sheltered at the church and, along with food and shelter, the chapel also had regular health care services in place including massage therapists, chiropodists, chiropractors and musicians to help make their stay easier. Despite the extensive debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center, the chapel itself survived relatively unscathed. It has since become a major landmark of the city and then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gave his farewell speech there in December, 2001. On September 10, 2006, a memorial service was held there which was attended by numerous politicians including then-President George W. Bush and Senator Hilary Clinton.
Visitors to the chapel can still see the memorial altar as well asa commemorative shrine showing some of the various mementos left at the church to honour the dead. The church has also set up a new public exhibit titled, "Unwavering Spirit: Hope and Healing at Ground Zero". That includes various exhibits inside show the personal effects, cots, and memorials for many of the rescue workers who died.
There is also a poignant firefighter's uniform on display as well as written testimonials by many of the visitors and former rescue workers praising the chapel and its staff for the support that they provided. As a Red Cross disaster services volunteer myself, this may well have been one of the most poignant features of my visit.
Along with the exhibits inside the chapel, there is also the iconic Bell of Hope that was presented to the chapel by the city of London. The Lord Mayor of London personally attended the presentation ceremony in 2002. The bell itself is in a prominent spot to the rear of the chapel.
After visiting the chapel, I went to the entrance of the Ground Zero monument on Liberty Street. The new One World Trade Center (designed by Daniel Libeskind) is scheduled for completion in 2013 and will be the centrepiece of the expanded World Trade Center. By the time it is finished, 1 WTC will be the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. The entrance to the memorial itself includes the Flag of Honor containing the names of all those killed at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and aboard the American and United flights on September 11, 2001 as well as in the February 26, 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. After the long lineup with hundreds of other visitors as well as passing through security (including metal detectors), I finally entered the memorial site itself.
Designed by architect Michael Arad, the 9/11 memorial (click here for an aerial view) is located on the site of the former World Trade Center features two enormous waterfalls and reflecting pools, each set within the radius of the two former towers. Designed to be ecologically friendly, more than 400 trees surround the reflecting pools along with enormous walkways and the sights and sounds of the continuing construction work. Although the fencing surrounding the construction areas are carefully covered over to preserve the peaceful monument site, I was able to sneak in a couple of photographs as well...
Along with the North and South reflecting pools, there is also a Memorial Glade used for special occasions and memorial ceremonies. And, yes, I did manage to get one picture of myself there as well (although trusting a total stranger with my expensive camera does not come easily...).
After leaving the Memorial site, I looked around the gift shop and explored the surrounding area a bit. Aside from the presence of the new World Trade Center and the Memorial, the area seems little different from the rest of downtown Manhattan. That a controversy sprang up in 2010 over building a mosque and Islamic education centre in the area reflects the ongoing determination by many Americans to declare the entire area to be a "sacred space" (and which is likely news to the various mundane businesses nearby). Exactly why a mosque is more objectionable than a hot-dog franchise seems to be a question best left up to the people of Manhattan. Still, the animosity that the mosque project incurred - helped along by right-wing lobby groups across the country- shows just how powerful an icon Ground Zero has become.
For the rest of Manhattan, life goes on as before. And that may well be the best way to honour the memory of all those who died on that terrible day.