REFLECTIONS from Ground Zero
Monday, 30 July 2007: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the sixth anniversary of 9/11 would not be held in the pit at Ground Zero, but instead at the nearby concrete Zuccotti Park.
The reason: “safety concerns”, now that construction is underway. After a public outcry from the victims’ families, threats of a lawsuit and boycott, the Mayor offered to meet with the families…
In 2005 and 2006, Geraldine Sweeney volunteered as an honor guard down in that pit. This is what she saw.
9 August 2007: Mayor Bloomberg reached a compromise with the families whereby they would be allowed to briefly descend single file into the pit at ground zero, and once more, pay their respects to those lost on September 11th, 2001 — a distinct contrast from previous years, when families were allowed to spend several contemplative hours, undeterred, down in the pit.
You descend into the pit via a large rough concrete and steel ramp. This path was used to haul away every bit of debris and human remains from the fallen Towers to Fresh Kills garbage dump in Staten Island — a site also considered sacred to those seeking proper removal of the remains of their loved ones.
The ramp leads to a dusty construction site where, after years of politics, fighting and wrangling, construction has begun. At the back of the site stands a massive slurry wall embedded with thick iron rivets. An engineer expressed concern to me about the wall: had it collapsed with the Towers, the Hudson River would have completely flooded Lower Manhattan, and created unimaginable havoc and further loss of life. In 2001, New York had no real mass evacuation plans…
Nearby, a large makeshift tent is set up to house volunteers, where we were instructed to form an honor guard that would line the perimeter of the site. Together we formed an eclectic group of about 450 volunteers composed of NYC firefighters and police; US Army, Navy and Office of Emergency Management personnel; and representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FBI as well as non-uniformed city agencies. Together, we were assigned our spot along the perimeter of Ground Zero. Two simple reflection pools had been set up to mark the locations of where the Towers once stood. I was directed to stand just below the ramp close to the location of the South Tower, where I heard nothing except for a passing New Jersey PATH train, which rattled its way around the perimeter.
At 8:00 AM, the ceremony began at street level and we could hear the familiar sound of bagpipes and drummers floating down, followed by a muffle of voices. Next, the first group of families of the victims began their walk down the ramp to the pit. At the reflection pools they left their messages, flowers, and were close to where their loved ones spent their final moments. Overhead the familiar cloudless blue sky reminded us of that morning in 2001, a nine-eleven day.
At 8:46 AM, a bell rang twice, and everyone became still. At that very moment, exactly five years earlier, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. The full horror would not register in our city until a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, followed into the South Tower at 9:03 AM, unfurling a blazing orange fireball that engulfed the top half of the Tower.
During a break from honor guard duty, I noticed a beautiful white dog, sitting in the front seat of a mini FDNY tractor. “She’s a therapy dog,” her owner, Marie, told me. “We come here every year to help out, the kids absolutely adore her.”
“After watching the Towers fall, I couldn’t stay away,” she continued. “I felt so helpless in Oregon, and within days I was here with the rest of the rescue workers doing what I could to bring relief.” Then she pointed to the swirling dust around us, which by now had covered my dark clothes with a thin veil of white powder. “It’s that same dust,” she told me. I asked if she experienced any of the adverse health symptoms that were currently being reported in the news. She explained how poor her health had been since ‘01, and that she’s worried: “It’s difficult right now to get approved for any of the government programs…”
Around 3:00 PM, I returned to the volunteer tent, where the coordinator explained that we were free to leave. I made one last visit to the reflection pools, aware it might be the last possible year to do so. The pools started the morning empty, but now overflowed with a blanket of flowers, mementos, photographs, notes and small shrines made from stones collected nearby.
I exited via the steel ramp and walked up to Church Street, where a large group of protesters had gathered. Angry crowds chanted: “9/11 was an inside job.” The police watched as the protestors handed out a publication entitled “Not the New York Times” in which they lay out the top fourteen reasons to doubt the official story of 9/11, and asked that people carefully consider their argument.
Later that evening, when the families, volunteers and protesters had all gone home and the site was once again empty, the Tribute in Light began: two great beams of light reached far into the night sky, remaining ‘til dawn, just as they have on every anniversary since the
As another September 11 has come and gone, and the access to the pit becomes more and more limited, the ceremony can never be the same. Now, everyone is just going to have to find a way to move forward.
Geraldine Sweeney is a photographer/writer in New York City. Originally from Ireland, she has traveled extensively throughout the world to photograph the beauty of the people and landscapes of faraway lands, including the Himalayans in Nepal and the temples of India. Her work has appeared at a number of group shows in New York and Santa Fe, New Mexico. During her spare time, she works as a Teacher’s Assistant at The International Center of Photography and volunteers with the non-profit organization Kids with Cameras, which helps to empower marginalized children through the art of photography.