At first we were not going to go.
As we made plans for a last-minute business/pleasure trip to New York City, my husband and I decided not to go see what is left of the World Trade Center — thinking it would be disrespectful to the thousands who died on the site and to those who lost loved ones there.
But go we did for the chance to see a snippet of history that is thankfully disappearing a little each day in the massive cleanup. Part of our curiosity to see the devastation stemmed from the fact that we had stayed at the Marriott World Trade Center back in 1998, a hotel that up until Sept. 11 was situated between the two towers. For $12 or $15, you could board a long escalator on the mezzanine of one of the towers, then take an elevator to the top of the world.
On our first morning back in New York, we took the subway downtown as far as we could to the site (some subway stations were damaged in the attack). For gawkers like us, the site can now be seen only atop a special platform built by the city to control the crowds — a brilliant move that no doubt will help workers haul the tons of debris out of the hole faster.
As we neared the WTC site, we noticed that certain streets in the financial district were blocked off from traffic. People with briefcases still hurried about, but there were plenty of construction workers there, too, and a feeling that something was not right. “The Closest Beer to Ground Zero” read an ad taped to a traffic blockade, and several unmentionable jabs at Osama were also taped up along the streets.
There is no way to pass the site without feeling the great loss of so many people. Long plywood walls that block people from the site have become memorials for those who died. Every inch is covered with hand-written poems, good-byes, a wedding picture cut from a newspaper, baseball caps, T-shirts, a thick scrapbook opened and leaning against a wall.
Standing at the bottom of the long plywood platform, we expected to go right up, but in another smart move by the city, you must have a ticket for a specific time. Even smarter is the fact that those tickets, which are free, can only be obtained at a ticket booth several blocks away. Less congestion, less people for workers to deal with.
The line was extremely long for the tickets, but it was a line that moved at lightning speed. Again, we were impressed at how well New Yorkers have organized this ordeal, always with respect for the dead.
With tickets for 1 to 1:30 p.m., we headed for the site and found a line had formed that stretched a good two blocks. Our hearts sank thinking we’d never make it to the front before our time was up, but again we found a well-run system. A loud man in an orange jacket was on the job, moving people up to the front so they would not miss their chance to see the site. I doubt, though, that they would have turned anyone away.
We had just five minutes on the platform. We found a spot in the small, quiet crowd and looked down into what at first looked like a typical construction site. The recognizable pieces of the building have been hauled away, leaving mostly just dirt and rubble in a huge hole.
Equipment, trailers and men in hardhats were everywhere, but a look at the damaged buildings around the site reminded you of the terrible event. One young man spent his entire five minutes with hands folded and eyes shut tight, praying for the dead. It was an unnaturally quiet place for New York, except for the sound of machinery clearing out the debris.
So that we may never forget this tragedy, pieces of the buildings have been hauled to an empty tarmac at Kennedy Airport to save for a future memorial. One of the most alarming items, as reported in last Sunday’s New York Times, is a block of fused metal and debris that is actually four floors of the Trade Center squashed into just two feet.
New York is a place where people walk fast with eyes to the ground — perhaps because it’s cold or perhaps they don’t want to meet the eyes of so many people who beg for money on the street. When the Times asked people to write in with ideas about what makes a New Yorker a New Yorker, one funny, but probably true, reply was:
“You’re extremely embarrassed when your out-of-town guest speaks to your neighbor in the elevator.”
Perhaps, though, New Yorkers too often get a bad rap. Their alarm, their grief is evident in the American flags that hang in apartment windows, the anti-Osama merchandise for sale on the street and in gift stores, countered by even more massive quantities of T-shirts, caps, mugs and other items for sale in support of the New York Fire Department and Police Department. Most impressive of all, however, is their respect for the dead in the quick, quiet, and well-organized way they move people through Ground Zero for a quick glimpse of history. In their hands, what could have been a chaotic, crowded tourist site is transformed into a small, quiet place to reflect and to remember.
Going to Ground Zero made me feel a bit like an intruder, like someone who goes to gawk after a terrible tornado has struck a neighborhood. Still, I am thankful for my brief chance to see this piece of history that will soon be gone, and for the chance to remember, to pray for everyone who was caught by surprise by a terrible act of terrorism.
Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.