My Visit to Ground Zero

This was a letter I wrote to myself about a trip I took back in 2001 reflecting on my dad and the twin towers.--Jill

     Only three months before 9/11 occurred, I made a trip to New York City, where my family gathered together 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.

     My father would pass away four months after our reunion, on October 1st, 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 very neighborhood 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 from this area, 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. Little did we realize then that they would not be with us much longer.

     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 all 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 started to feel 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 not only for big businesses like the big 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 that 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 40 folks were selected to bring hundreds of dreamcatchers made by all sorts of people, young and old throughout the state of NM. They would be delivering 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 fellow co-workers only  weeks before. I thought a special greeting would be fitting for them when they arrived at the Hotel. So, I scrounged some paperboard and made a sign while holding it up, as the bus pull up in front of the hotel off 42nd St. It read,

WELCOME OUR NEW MEXICO FRIENDS; NEW YORK IS SO HAPPY TO HAVE YOU HERE.

     Some of the folks that traveled had never even been out of their small hometowns. They were now part of something that was being viewed by the whole world. They arrived tired, and hungry but excited to meet their greeters.

     The following morning we headed down to the lower east side to  ground zero. We were instructed that when we arrive we were to refrain from taking photographs. We arrived at the location and we were directed to the newly constructed deck that was built just for the families and visiting dignitaries.  Some of the New Mexico visitors were Native American tribal Leaders who performed a sacred ceremony on the deck while everyone just stood in silence looking out at the giant open space, once considered to be 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. As we lined up along the rough bare wood tables some of us prayed. Some cried and some like myself stood there bewildered by the physical reality of what we were witnessing. The images of the giant bulldozers scooping up debris are still stuck 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. At that moment I wondered about those villagers that were forced to experience the Holocaust camps after they were liberated. Did they smell death and was it the same?

    After we left Ground Zero we drove to City Hall where we were next directed to the Mayor’s office. Mayor Giuliani was not there, however, there were several high-ranking NYC officials that addressed our group of around 40. Stories were shared by both officials and the New Mexico visitors and 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 member of the group I still felt special and privileged to be there.

     Later we were taken for a tour of the city 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 of the firefighters that had died. There were all sorts of notices about memorials service dates despite the fact that it had been several weeks after the day. They said most of the body remains were brought to Staten Island to be identified. It was after this process that individual firefighter's service would be scheduled.

 Everything about this day was grim but I saw it was part of their job in educating 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 restaurant for cheesecake. I remember the fireman driving the bus was in the mood for cheesecake. At the restaurant, we all spread out 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 important people in NYC. They smiled and laughed along with us talking about 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 what I do remember was the ride home. The bus ride heading back to Cape Cod was different than the ride down. As I looked out the window while leaving Penn Station I realized that New York will always be a big part of who I am.

     I have memories of before the Towers were built and after. 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 visited then with 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 the victim's families could sleep at night. I will always remember the firefighters that 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 now as good old friends.  As a senior in high school, their doors became opened to the world and twenty-eight years later they were struck down.

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

 

  

                                                                      Please excuse my Patty Hearst look!


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