The first time I visited the piece of ground in Lower Manhattan where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once rose into the sky, the wounds were still fresh. A pungent, acrid presence hung in the air as crews busied themselves cutting through the tangle of steel, cement, and human memorabilia that was all that remained of the place where thousands had worked and died.
That day, I was one among a crowd of tourists from all over the world who came to gawk, cry, pay their respects, and conjecture at the senselessness of it all. Thousands of flowers woven into the fences around the work area paid tribute to the fallen. Every few feet another photo, an American flag, a hand-scrawled note, small stuffed animal, or other personal item was a searing reminder that the lives of husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and children were irrevocably changed that Tuesday morning in September 2001. Grown men openly wept and couples clung to each other, bracing themselves against the tenuous nature of life and the uncertainty of tomorrow.
There was no talk of retribution, no sense of outrage, just pain. Those of us who joined the cortege passed each other silently, nodding our human connection. In this spontaneously formed sacred community no one led the way, or told us what was appropriate, or stifled the unbridled outpouring of our hearts with rhetoric.
I returned last week, some five years later, expecting to see the greenery of parks, a tasteful memorial, the foundations of a new landmark building, but I was wrong. The rebuilding efforts, in an impossible attempt to appease everyone, have become hopelessly mired in political and legal wrangling. Although the mass of rubble that once filled the gaping hole has been cleared, precious little else has been accomplished. However, other things had changed. The subway station at the end of the E train is restored, so visitors no longer have to trudge across the financial district to reach the site. The profusion of bouquets and wreaths has been replaced by an occasional single flower. The handwritten placards, notes, and photos have given way to posters and signage. And the people are different. There are fewer, and they walk faster now, as if another, more pressing appointment is occupying their minds. There’s more chatter and camaraderie among the visitors, who pose for photographs in front of the raised cranes and hardhat workers as proof to share with friends back home.
On this second visit, my wife, Arianne, was with me. This was her first visit to New York since 9/11, and she wanted to see ground zero. Such places – like Masada, Kosovo, Auschwitz, and Darfur – that mark moments of humankind’s gross insensitivities are to be honored and remembered, and visited as places of pilgrimage to help balance the skewed karmic acts of our fear-ridden brethren.
Determined to circumnavigate the site, Arianne and I began walking counterclockwise around it, from time to time peering through openings in the fence into the gaping hole below. This time there was no sense of urgency. Giant machines were unhurriedly dipping into soupy ground water, hauling out dirt and rock. Workers directed the odd haul truck and strolled through ground zero as if this was any ordinary job site in Chicago or London or Sydney. Things had indeed changed, and I was sorry Arianne had not shared the poignancy of my earlier visit.
We had almost finished the intended loop when my wife noticed the Tribute WTC Visitor Center (http://www.tributewtc.org), a store-front museum memorializing the 9/11 tragedy. At the modest entrance on Liberty Street the guard gave each of us a simple blue pin with two tiny rectangles, symbolizing the missing twin towers, stamped out of the center portion. I reverently inserted it in my jacket’s lapel hole, secure in the knowledge that despite the pettiness of politics and legal hassling, what had happened here five years earlier would never be forgotten.
The exhibit, a multimedia presentation of news clips, photos, narrations, and personal artifacts, was tastefully done. Pieces of thumb-thick steel girders, warped by the massive hammers of one hundred crashing stories, stood like wild sculptures next to the shredded jacket of a firefighter who died while trying to help the thousands trapped in the burning buildings. There were photo murals of those who perished; most seemed little more than youngsters just beginning their lives in the working world.
One wall held a collection of the original, hastily written mini-posters that had been plastered all over Lower Manhattan within hours of the tragedy, asking if loved ones had been seen. In stark contrast, another display featured a window section from one of the commandeered airplanes that had struck the towers. We walked through the museum’s five galleries in total silence, overcome with the anguish that comes from stepping out of the emotional safety of an actuarial perspective into personal story.
Following a small sign, we went down to the basement to see an additional exhibit. The room was presided over by a sweet-looking lady of indeterminate age who asked if I wanted to listen to audio clips by some of the survivors through a set of headphones. Sufficiently buffeted by what I had already experienced upstairs, I politely refused. Instead, I started reading some of the comment cards from recent visitors tacked to the exit wall.
Just then, the lady, Theresa Mullan, began addressing a small group of high school students seated around a table in the center of the room. There was none of the usual horseplay and banter among these teenagers; they were focused on her every word. I stopped pretending to be absorbed in the comment cards, and turned to listen. As I heard her first sentence, I knew what she said would be indelibly etched into my heart.
“Let me tell you about my son, Michael.”
The last time Theresa heard her son’s voice was on the phone. He and his mates of Ladder 12 of the New York Fire Department were answering the call to assist people trapped in a hotel adjacent to the World Trade Center. He briefly described the situation and suggested his parents turn on their television. “This is a bad one,” he said. “I love you, Mom.”
She spoke wistfully of his early years, telling her young audience that hardly a semester had gone by when she wasn’t called in to Michael’s school because of some trouble he’d gotten into. Although he was a good student who got high grades, he was easily bored. Theresa’s audience nodded. They could relate.
After graduation, Michael spent four years in the army, to grow up a bit and find himself. When he was discharged, he applied to become a New York fireman – one of the most dangerous and personally rewarding jobs on the planet. While waiting for an opening, Michael continued his military career as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves and as a fully qualified nurse in New York’s Mercy Hospital. He was clearly, in every respect, an extraordinary young man who had consistently chosen a path of service.
His life abruptly ended on 9/11. Evacuation of the hotel had gone according to plan until the first tower collapsed. The sheer magnitude of the crash sent giant chunks of metal and rock hurtling in all directions. Several of them knocked out the lights of the hotel, trapping his teammates in a blackness made more difficult by the nearly impenetrable smoke. Radios and walkie-talkies became inoperable, and Michael, who was on a lower floor, could barely hear their cries for help. In the confusion, his team’s probie (probationary fireman) lost the rope he was carrying, and now the men had no way of getting out.
It was while Michael was making his way to rescue his buddies that the second tower collapsed, hurling another avalanche of deadly debris that indiscriminately wiped out everything in its path. Michael never again called his mom, nor would he fulfill whatever destiny he had imagined for himself. He, along with 343 other members of the New York Fire Department, 75 New York policemen, and 2,374 civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, was a casualty that day of humankind’s inexplicable capacity for cruelty.
But there was no bitterness in Theresa’s voice, no malice directed either at God or the perpetrators of the tragedy. There was only a mother’s love for her son. Her story melted all of our hearts. Everyone in the room was vulnerable again, able to feel each others’ pain, able to genuinely care, able to unite.
She looked at the youngsters, holding the gaze of each one just long enough to confirm contact, and said, “If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is one of service. Whatever you decide to do with your lives, dedicate some portion of it to volunteering. Find somewhere in your own community where your presence will make a difference. Even one day a week or one day a month, do something to help others have a better life.”
Thank you, Michael.
Jean-Claude Gerard Koven is a writer and speaker based in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. He was a featured weekly columnist for the UPI (United Press International) Religion and Spirituality Forum and is the author of Going Deeper: How to Make Sense of Your Life When Your Life Makes No Sense, recipient of both the Allbooks Reviews Editor’s Choice Award and the USABookNews.com Award for the Best Metaphysical Book of the Year.
©2004 – 2020. Jean-Claude Gerard Koven / All Rights Reserved.