Like most Americans, I remember when 9/11 happened. I was in 3rd period typing class, freshman year of high school. Although I grew up close to New York and I had a brother that had just moved to the city, I was not much involved in post 9/11 efforts. But three weeks ago an email came in at work with an opportunity to volunteer at the 10th anniversary. This would be the first one at the new memorial site, and open only to families of the people lost on that awful day. Without hesitation I replied yes.
And so on September 11th, 2011 I woke up at 4 a.m. to help assist with family security at the new memorial site. While riding my bike over the Williamsburg Bridge I noticed the full moon over the city. It was cold out, but I could tell it was going to be a beautiful day. We met with our volunteer captains and were given out jobs. Men and women of all ages and from various city organizations all made similar trips that I did in order to be here. Our job was to make sure the expected 30,000 people who were coming to the site that day could get in quickly. They would have to go through security similar to an airport, and if things got congested they could miss out on important events, therefore keeping the lines moving was important. My first station was on the corner of Murray and Greenwich.
As I watched the procession of families come in I made sure to say hello if possible, and take note of their expressions. Many people looked sad, but you could tell in their body posture that they were excited to be here today. Today was special, not just because this was the 10th anniversary, but that they were going to see the permanent site that would hold their lost loved ones names. This moment had been a long time coming.
The make up of the crowd coming to the site was almost exactly like the make up of New York City. Families came in all types of sizes and colors. There was Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Hasidics, Asians, and Muslims. I even noticed some foreign languages, remembering that it was not just Americans who were lost in the September 11th attacks. Some families were dressed up in blazers and suits, some had screen printed t-shirts of their deceased family members and many held posters with photos and names. It was obvious there were some class differences amongst the visitors, but regardless their purpose and intentions today were the same.
At 8:46 am they had their first moment of silence. The majority of people coming to visit for the day had made it in to the site already. By ten o clock we started to break down our station, take a break and then were redirected to the memorial site itself. Our group of volunteers got to walk behind the barricades on Church Street on the eastern edge of the site. Walking here we saw the many people who were attending the event just as spectators. They watched the screens as family members read off the names of the deceased on a platform within the site. I was able to take in the scene, and saw how many tens of thousands had come out for the service.
Arriving at the southern section of the site was the first time I have ever been able to step foot on what was formerly Ground Zero. I say formally because I personally don’t call it Ground Zero anymore. Although there are still some craters, the foundations are set for the future skyscrapers’ to be built. And then of course you have 1 World Trade Center towering above on the north side of the site, its peak now the highest in the Financial District. When I first started working in Lower Manhattan in 2008 this building had just been a small steel structure, its current height is now visible from my apartment in Brooklyn. I think any unfamiliar with the site now would be confused by the term “Ground Zero”.
Around 2 o’clock I was directed to enter the site itself to assist giving directions, making me one of the few non family members of the deceased to do so. When I finally got inside, I had to take a moment to understand and take in what I was seeing.
Say what you will about the design, how you don’t like the architecture of the towers, the layout of trees, or the empty pools that are the footprint of the former world trade center. The sight that I saw on this day was one that could only fill an American, and especially a New Yorker, with pride. Everyone was together, they felt safe, and they were able to grieve and share this space together. 3,000 people perished at this site 10 years ago, some are still suffering with health problems from the clean up, and billions has been spent on reconstruction. And yet on this day you could not only see the progress, you felt it all around you. The progress not only in the reconstruction of the site, but of the lives of the people gathered today.
Outside the site, everyone had looked serious, or sullen, and some even had tears. But inside was different. Inside people were smiling, some people were laughing as they embraced friends. There were many kids present, and they maneuvered and played here like it was a playground. I thought to myself that most of these kids must be under the age of 10, some so young they probably weren’t even aware of where they were, or knowing that they were first of what will be tens of millions of people to see this site. But most of all, they were having fun.
The pools themselves are massive. Looking in from the edge it looks as if when the water falls towards the center that it is falling into Earth itself. Around the edge of the pools are all the names of the victims etched in a metal sheath. Many people left tokens or pictures next to their loved ones names. Surveying this area, I saw a young Hasidic family with a newborn baby. They placed him on the edge of the pool next to the name of their lost family member, perhaps his grandfather or uncle. The baby looked into the waterfall in awe. As they were taking a photo of him, they tried to get him to look forward and at the camera, but their efforts were all in vain, his young eyes fixated on the running water. If only all of New York could have seen the tranquility and relief amongst the visitors this day, it was a great sight indeed.
There is a difference between death and a tragedy. There was more than one ten year old who read a name of a deceased father, never getting to meet them, never getting to see the actual twin towers where they perished, but coming to the site this day to pay respects and talk about the bonds they would never have. Even more populated were the elderly, people who had to live through the awful experience of losing their child, or even grandchild. For some saying 9/11 felt like yesterday is not a clichÃ©, this date will always bring painful memories of the loved ones they lost. I realized at this moment how important it was for these people to come together and remember, and grieve, and share their pain amongst friends through tragedy.
It has taken many efforts from the very local level all the way to the Federal level to assist with reconstruction at this site. 10 years is indeed a long time to rebuild, but we now know that progress is showing its head, and we are working toward a beautiful goal. This memorial was a wonderful tribute, and I hope those who see it remember how important it was this day for the victim’s families.
I still have somewhere at home a photo of myself with the twin towers from a 6th grade trip. I know I must have stared at the towers for ages that day, and we toured the base of them. Those memories however are not as vivid as the ones I have of when I first heard the announcement they were crumbling in that 3rd period typing class. But looking at the memorial I could only think of the many of the signs I saw around me, “Lost, But Never Forgotten.”