Ground Zero Revisited
While visiting New York City last month, I made a pilgrimage to Ground Zero to pay my respects. It was the day before the fifth anniversary of 9/11, but the circus-like atmosphere had already begun.
Between the as-of-yet unbuilt WTC memorial, the vendors selling souvenirs, the antiwar protesters, the 9/11 conspiracists and the gawking tourists, my visit to Ground Zero was one I would not readily repeat. Indeed, in an article on the subject for SFGate.com, I pledged not to do so again until a proper framework exists for visitors to grieve and pay tribute to the losses of 9/11.
While writing the column was emotional enough, it was the response that really moved me. I received many a touching e-mail from readers who had similar experiences at Ground Zero and reading them made me feel much less alone. From FDNY to law enforcement to people who lost family members on 9/11 to WTC recovery worker volunteers, the response was truly overwhelming.
Some of it saddened me for it spoke to troublesome aspects revolving around Ground Zero that I hadn’t formerly known delved into.
Many of us have heard about the ill health effects suffered by the first responders, rescue and recovery workers who went to Ground Zero immediately after the terrorist attacks. What’s perhaps less known is that some of them have had difficulty paying for related healthcare and have experienced various financial and personal hardships as a result. As pointed out to me by several readers, an organization called Unsung: Heroes Helping Heroes is dedicated to educating the public on this issue and raising funds to help workers and their dependents.
Musician Tom Chelston has been involved with these efforts since 9/11 and has written a number of songs in tribute to those unsung heroes. He performed at a ceremony for the families on 9/10/06 and also in Washington D.C. a day later. Tom’s website, while putting forward some political viewpoints I disagree with, nonetheless does honor to its stated purpose. And I was very moved by the song he dedicated to his friend John Sferazo.
On yet another sobering note, the fate of the ashen remains of 9/11 victims, which were immediately scooped up after the attacks and moved to the ironically named Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, hangs in the balance. Families who lost loved ones on 9/11 have been urging President Bush, Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg to try and recover any further remains, but to no avail.
The mother of a 26-year old killed in the 9/11 attacks wrote to me about the organization she belongs to, WTC Families for Proper Burial. The group held a rally at Ground Zero on 9/9/06 and is currently filing a lawsuit against the city. She made clear that the suit is not about financial compensation, but rather a decent burial for their loved ones.
Immediately following 9/11, recovery workers painstakingly sifted through the debris in search of human remains, personal effects, and criminal evidence. But according to a Cox News article, "fewer than 300 intact bodies and more than 20,000 parts were recovered" and "many of those remains have not been identified." The fact that 760 body parts were recently found at the Deutsche Bank building, a skyscraper slated for demolition because it was damaged in the attack on the WTC, seems to back up the families’ contention.
Amidst the sadness and disappointment, I was heartened to hear about various museums, centers and websites dedicated to 9/11, not to mention an aspect of Ground Zero I knew nothing about.
A reader who lost his sister on Flight #11 informed me that there is a "quiet and secured 9/11 family room at the liberty building across the street." This news came as a relief because I can’t imagine grieving family members contending with the crowds and bizarre atmosphere at the street level.
Also across the street from Ground Zero is the newly opened TributeWTC visitor center. A reader who volunteers at the center brought it to my attention. She had been one of the initial volunteers in the Ground Zero recovery effort and she sent me the link to a website dedicated to such volunteers.
Another reader told me about the Ground Zero Museum Workshop, describing it as, "one of the most important places I have ever been." Filled with unforgettable photographs and artifacts from Ground Zero, including a clock from the WTC Path station stopped at 10:02am, September 11, the museum will definitely be a destination on my next trip to New York City. In the meantime, the website is well worth the visit. Be sure to turn up the speakers and watch the introductory slideshow on the homepage.
It was also suggested by several readers that I take a train ride to the New York State Museum in Albany for the long term exhibit, The World Trade Center: Rescue, Recovery, Response. The museum houses the largest collection of 9/11 artifacts in the country and these simple objects can have great resonance. One reader described how "the burned out fire truck and steel beams bent in half from the heat are a very powerful reminders of what happened." The museum also sponsors a traveling exhibit called Recovery: The World Trade Center Recovery Operation at Fresh Kills, involving those artifacts that were found at the landfill soon after 9/11.
As for my comments on the inappropriate behavior of tourists at Ground Zero, many readers agreed. And several remarked on my comparison to tourists visiting the former concentration camp, Auschwitz. As I put it, "It’s as if one visited Auschwitz and wanted to take adorable snapshots of loved ones standing in front of the gas chambers." Sadly, I heard from more than a few readers who recently visited Auschwitz and assured me that this is indeed the situation.
One of them described how tourists "posed in front of the infamous ‘Arbeit macht frei’ gate, in front of the gas chambers, in the barracks, next to ovens, trying to include the mounds of human hair and shoes into the background with the group shots, [and] finding the best stretch of barb wire to photograph." Needless to say, I found this disturbing, but alas, not terribly surprising considering my recent experience at Ground Zero.
As I indicated in the article, my initial visit in 2003 was a much more satisfying one. At the time, the atmosphere was muted and I didn’t witness any objectionable behavior on the part of onlookers. However, many New York readers informed me that the surreal spectacle I encountered on my second visit had in fact existed almost from the very beginning. Then again, others described witnessing moments of genuine feeling and fittingly sober behavior on many occasions at Ground Zero.
I suspect the truth probably lies somewhere in between and it just depends on the individual circumstances. I can only speak for myself and as I stated in my article, I don’t plan on returning to Ground Zero in its present state. But I’ll leave it up to others to choose the best way to commemorate 9/11 in the years to come. I can only hope that this discussion has offered forth a few ideas.
Cross-posted at Kesher Talk.