My Visit to Ground Zero

I wrote this story about a trip I took back in 2001 reflecting on my dad and the twin towers.As they were being built he shared with us the history of those that had the courage to build them.--Jill Modell-Dion.

Only three months before 9/11, I made a trip to New York City, where my family gathered for a small reunion at the Embassy Suites in Lower Manhattan. Our Hotel was a few blocks from the World Trade buildings. So many changes were about to happen.

Four months after our reunion, my father passed away on October 1, 2001. But during our trip, he loved being in the very place close to where he grew up as a child. As we ate dinner, we laughed and swapped stories in the same neighborhood where I had spent so much time as a young child, Battery Park. -------We didn’t realize that this would be the last time we would be all together and the last time we would see those tall buildings.

As a child born in NYC, I remembered how I resented those tall skyscrapers as they were being built. I knew they would soon dominate the NYC skyline, overshadowing the Art Deco masterpieces of architecture, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. It was a petty childhood idea and little did I realize then that they would not be with us forever and what that would mean.

Then the day came that we would all remember, September 11, 2001. My family and the rest of the world would witness how cruel life can be. So many of our fellow Americans, visitors to our country, and New York City's tallest attraction were gone----wiped out.

It took weeks to wrap your head around what had happened. And night after night of watching those images on TV, I felt guilty. Yes guilty. I had harbored such childish feelings against the two buildings. I could only now be grateful that I had the opportunity to have known them---- before, during, and after their construction.

They were for more than big businesses like the financial companies you read about. They also were home to small businesses that fixed watches, sold jewelry, and served delicious NY bagels and knishes.

After 9/11, my father passed away, and my sister and I felt so much of our childhood was gone forever. We soon began preparing for the holidays, which we hoped would serve as a distraction. Thanksgiving passed, and later that weekend, I received a call from my sister inviting me to join her and several folks traveling from New Mexico. Around forty folks were selected to bring hundreds of dreamcatchers. They were made by all sorts of people, young and old, throughout the state of NM. They would deliver them to the Mayor of NYC, who would pass them on to the children, survivors, and families that lost so much.

The handmade dreamcatchers, ----hoops, on which are woven, like spiders' webs. They decorated each with personal and sacred items such as feathers and beads. Made by strangers to hang above the beds as a charm to protect sleeping children and those close to the pain from nightmares.

I said yes. I hopped on a bus from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to New York’s Times Square, arriving hours before the group from NM. They flew into Newark, NJ, greeted by one of the NYFD units in a red and white school bus owned by the NYFD. Each firefighter who was there had lost co-workers only weeks before. I thought a special greeting would please them when they arrived at the Hotel. So, I scrounged some paperboard and made a sign while holding it up. As the bus pulled up in front of the Hotel off 42nd St., It read,


Some folks who traveled had never even been out of their small hometowns. They were now part of something along with the whole world. They arrived tired and hungry but excited to meet their greeters.

We headed to the lower east side to ground zero the following morning. Instructed when we arrived, we were to refrain from taking photographs. We arrived at the location and were directed to the newly constructed deck built for families and visiting dignitaries. Among the New Mexico visitors were Native American tribal Leaders who performed a sacred ceremony on the deck. At the same time, everyone stood in silence, looking out at the giant open space, once considered the home of the most majestic buildings in the world.

All along the deck were tables with pictures, mementos, prayer cards, and candles left behind by grieving relatives and friends. I remembered glancing down at a photograph with the name of one of the victims who died on the plane leaving Boston’s Logan Airport. I didn’t realize at that time I would later meet this young man’s mother at a friend’s dinner party in Cape Cod, where we both lived.

There are no coincidences in life but acts of connection.

The faces of the victims looked like each of ours. They could be our mothers, our sisters, and our brothers. Some of us prayed as we lined up along the rough, bare wood tables. Some cried, and some, like myself, stood there bewildered by the physical reality of what we were witnessing. Images of the giant bulldozers scooping up debris are still in my head.

When it was time to leave, I remember the lingering smells of what must have been everything that came down with the Towers. It then hit me that it included the smells of those that perished. I wondered about villagers forced to experience the Holocaust camps after liberation. Did they smell death, and was it the same?

  After leaving Ground Zero, we drove to City Hall, the Mayor’s office. Mayor Giuliani was not there; however, several high-ranking NYC officials addressed our group of around forty. Both officials and the New Mexico visitors shared stories. The presentation of all the dreamcatchers left everyone filled with high emotions.

   Since I was the only person not from New Mexico, I took a picture with a small camera, standing on a chair with everyone in the Mayor's briefing room standing side by side. Although I was not an official group member, I still felt privileged to be there.

   Later, we were taken for a city tour, starting from the Mayor’s office to Brooklyn, where we visited the main NYFD headquarters. There, we read testimonies on the walls and saw pictures of many firefighters who had died. There were all sorts of notices about memorial service dates, even though it had been several weeks after the day. They said most body remains were brought to Staten Island and identified. After this process, they scheduled services for individual firefighters.

 Everything about this day was grim, but I saw it was part of their job to educate us. And they did it with such courage and grace. ------This is who they are. 

   Once we left the Headquarters, we went to one of Brooklyn’s popular restaurants for cheesecake. I remember the fireman driving the bus was in the mood for cheesecake. We all spread out at the restaurant, sitting as if we had all known one another forever. I could hardly believe that these men who had recently lost so much made every effort to treat us as if each of us were the most influential people in NYC. They smiled and laughed, discussing their love for New York, their families, and their beloved Yankees and Mets.

   I don’t remember exactly how many days I spent there in NYC. It must have been two or three, but I remember the ride home. The bus ride heading back to Cape Cod differed from the ride down. Looking out the window while leaving Penn Station, I knew New York would always be a big part of my identity.

   I remember before and after the Towers. For several years during construction, we saw the scaffolding from the highway on our visits to Brooklyn. My only visit to the Towers was back in 1991. I accompanied foreign exchange students staying with our family. My impression was so overwhelming I experienced a slight panic attack. Yet, the views were breathtaking. 

   I now have a new memory of their immediate post-existence. The people who travel across the country from New Mexico so the survivors and victims' families could sleep at night. I will never forget the firefighters who ate cheesecake with me and laughed about my love for the Red Sox despite my deep New York roots.

   So, in conclusion, to my story, I share with you my promise.----- I will remember the Twin Towers, not as I once resented them, but as good old friends. When I was a high school senior, their doors opened to the world, and twenty-eight years later, they were struck down.

I will mourn for them and everyone who perished with them and never forget.




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