The devastating events of 9/11 ripped the heart out of the city of New York and its effects were understandably wide reaching, not only in this city but throughout America and the rest of the world. Despite the human tragedy of that day, which touched the lives of so many thousands of people, New Yorkers were galvanised in to rebuilding the financial district of downtown Manhattan, and with it, the pride of New York City as a whole. Ground Zero has, ever since that day in 2001, been a hive of activity; from the initial search through the rubble for survivors, with the workers only pausing to listen, when it was thought that there was some sign of life coming from beneath the debris; to the clearing of the site, ready to start the rebuilding process; from the laying out of the 9/11 memorial, to the new tower blocks that are now rising up as testament to New York’s spirit; the work has carried on relentlessly. I was here eight years ago when the bulldozers and diggers were preparing the ground for what was to emerge, and back then it was hard to believe that the city was picking itself up, dusting itself off, and starting all over again with a new World Trade Centre site.
Coming back to New York now, four years after the financial crisis and eleven years after the terrorist attacks, it is strange to find the city reeling from the forces of nature, in the form of Superstorm Sandy, which has wreaked havoc in Staten Island and Long Island, and is still being felt on the underground system in Downtown Manhattan.
That’s where I have been this afternoon, visiting the monument to 9/11, which will form the heart of the new World Trade Centre, when it is finally completed. The usual visitor centre has fallen victim to Sandy’s flood waters and so a temporary centre has been thrown together. Somehow this feels like a fitting setting for a 9/11 centre, it being a makeshift response to the effects of the city’s latest disaster.
The array of exhibits feature recordings of emergency services’ conversations that occurred on the day of the attacks, and odds and ends taken from the rubble of the towers, including the charred remains of an airplane window frame, which is very unnerving. The most moving element of the display is a wall covered in the ‘missing’ posters that were originally posted up at the crisis centre in the days and weeks after the attacks, when relatives and friends were desperately searching for any news of loved ones that had not been heard of. None of the people featured on this wall were ever heard from again and it is a striking reminder of the individual human tragedies that have become lost in the disaster movie memory we refer to simply as 9/11
More very personal reflections of the day come on a walking tour of the area, led by Joe, a volunteer and a survivor, who had been on the 77th floor of the South Tower, and had been alerted to a potential problem by a colleague who had seen smoke coming from the North Tower. Back in 1993, they had both been working in the same building when terrorists had driven a van containing explosives in to the underground garage of the North tower. During that attack Joe and his colleagues had ignored advice to leave the building and had carried on working. It was only after the event that they learned that the bombers had intended to topple the North Tower in to the South Tower, bringing both of them down. On September 11th Joe and his colleagues were better prepared and had made it in the lift down to the 44th floor, where they were waiting for a second lift. They then heard an announcement over the building’s P.A. System, advising them all to return to their offices. This advice was apparently based on the amount of debris that was pouring down from the North Tower, which was considered a risk to those trying to exit the South Tower. Joe informs us that the first fire officer to be killed at the scene, died as a result of someone jumping from the burning building and landing on him. Joe ignored the advice given and had made it safely out to Soho by the time the towers collapsed.
Another volunteer, Frank, tells us about his sister Lucia, who wasn’t so lucky, and who died in the American Express offices on the 92nd floor of the North Tower. Her name is one of eleven inscribed on a memorial called eleven tears, which is situated in the American Express offices in the World Financial Centre. Frank is still visibly moved whilst telling his story, and talks of the hours of uncertainty following that attacks, when he was unsure whether Lucia has been in the building.
Joe and Frank leave us to wander around the 9/11 Memorial and I wonder whether their volunteer work is cathartic and serving as a therapy for the trauma visited on both of them in different ways, or whether it keeps them in a loop of constantly visiting that fateful day and actually stops them moving forward with their lives. I am not sure which it is, but they both spoke of not wanting the world to forget. I hope that they do gain some release from their pain in the opportunity they have to share their stories. It was certainly a mesmerising experience listening to their accounts of the day.
The 9/11 Memorial itself will, eventually, become a haven of tranquility in the midst of the hubbub of commerce that will exist around it in the new tower blocks that are being erected now. For the moment the construction noise proves difficult to block out, and so the reflective atmosphere that was intended is difficult to perceive. Nonetheless the vast twin waterfalls running down in to seemingly bottomless pools that represent those that died in each of the tower attacks, as well as those that died at the Pentagon and on United flight 93, are sombre reminders of what was lost. In the fullness of time, when the trees that have been planted have reached maturity, and the building work gives way to tranquility, an oasis of calm will be here for those looking to remember and reflect.
For the moment, the phoenix rising from the flames in the shape of One World Trace Centre, originally named the Freedom Tower is, a wonder to behold. It is well on it’s way to completion with over 100 floors already erected. The construction work should be completed by the end of 2013. New York will then be able to claim that it has truly overcome the terrorist’s attempts to bring the world’s financial capital to it’s knees, and will have found a way to heal it’s collective wounds.