As the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York looms on Tuesday, September 11, Brisbane priest FR JOHN CHALMERS reflects on a recent visit to Memorial Plaza at Ground Zero, the site of the tragedy
ON an unseasonably hot and humid summer day, on June 12, 2012, my New York cousins and I went to the World Trade Centre Tribute Centre to take a guided tour of Memorial Plaza, the transformed Ground Zero. I learned much about pastoral ministry and about life that day.
On busy, lower Manhattan’s Liberty Street, my cousins Sue and Mike and their adult children Michael and Kate joined me and a band of 20 or so “pilgrims” from Mexico, West Virginia and Belgium for a comprehensive pre-tour briefing.
The Tribute Centre provides informative tours of the WTC memorial five or six times daily.
Each tour is guided by two of more than 400 volunteer guides, each of them deeply affected by the events of 9/11. They include downtown residents, relatives and emergency responders.
The 90-minute tours incorporate the volunteer tour guide’s personal September 11 story, an account of the tragedy, a description of the memorial and the rebuilding of the site.
Each tour guide undertakes a comprehensive, gradual orientation process, eventually accompanying an experienced guide, before leading a tour.
Each tour is structured around four planned stops on Memorial Plaza.
However, each guide’s story at those stops is distinctly personal.
What tour guides would seem to have in common is the dawning awareness that there is a right time to step forward as a volunteer tour guide.
Readiness factors entail discerning whether a potential guide is free from habitually short-circuiting tourists and visitors from having their own way of relating to 9/11.
When New York firefighter Bill Spade was recovering from his injuries after 9/11, he never imagined returning to the site, let alone telling anyone what happened that day.
“I always said I thought this was something I would never talk about. Now I’m talking about it (as a tour guide) twice a week,” he said.
He adds that telling his story has been a healing and a “saving grace” in his life.
This comment resonates with the “something more” that I discovered on Memorial Plaza that day.
There, amid so many elements that reflect absence, I found an unanticipated liveliness.
I heard how, after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre in which six people died, significant changes were made for evacuating the towers.
Whereas it had taken half a day to evacuate Tower Six after the 1993 bombing, between 17,000 and 24,000 people reached safety on 9/11 in less than an hour.
Most of the nearly 3000 people who died that day were located on the floors above where the planes impacted.
Clearly, learning from the 1993 attacks was also a “saving grace”.
Yet Martin, our tour guide, took us beyond mere facts, to consider factors that were at play.
He did this by repeating a phrase in his preparatory briefing: “When you get to the Memorial you won’t know who you are standing next to. You won’t know their story. Be mindful of what you say. Watch your words because you don’t know who you are standing beside as you peer into the pit,” – perhaps one of those many thousands of survivors, perhaps a family member of one of the nearly three thousand who perished, perhaps an emergency responder who lost numerous NYFD friends and colleagues.
You don’t know who you are standing next to. Isn’t that equally true of each of our lives?
Reflecting Absence and Presence
Perhaps 1000 people were on the Memorial Plaza that day. Yet I detected a sense of awe, not dissimilar to the “something more” that Moses encountered at the burning bush.
So awe-filled was his experience that day that Moses’ only possible response was to take off his shoes. He was standing on Holy Ground.
Ironically, in the name of security-screening, every visitor to the Memorial Plaza takes their shoes off and steps through an X-ray machine.
In retrospect, how profound … shoes are removed to ready the visitor for the sacred encounter, not so much at the burning bush but at our memories of the burning towers.
Ground Zero is holy ground because of those people who lost their lives.
It is holy ground for those people who miraculously survived thanks to revamped evacuation procedures after the 1993 bombing.
The heroic efforts of firefighters, police and emergency services also make it holy ground.
I like to think as well that the dedicated workers who occupied the World Trade Towers for over 30 years had also made it holy ground.
It’s equally a matter of awe, or rather of the awefulness we encounter in life, that buildings which took 10 years to construct, took less than 10 seconds to crumble on that fateful day.
Is it mere coincidence or is it that “something more”, “saving grace” that standing unobtrusively amid the rows of swamp white oaks, just back from the South Pool, is Ground Zero’s burning bush, better known as “the Survivor Tree”.
“Planted on the original World Trade Centre site in the 1970s, on 9/11 it was reduced to an eight-foot stump in the wreckage at Ground Zero. Nursed back to health in a New York City park, the tree was uprooted by severe storms in March 2010. But it survived and it stands, supported by temporary guide wires as it takes root on Memorial Plaza.”
Martin’s group of pilgrims found welcome shade under the robust yet fragile branches of that tree at high noon, as we were being prepared to spend time alone at the reflection pools, peering into and pondering the Memorial, in the footprints of the original north and south towers.
Before stepping back and leaving us to our own reflections at the edge of the abyss, Martin spoke of the design concept of the Memorial.
We would find ourselves peering into “the void”.
We’d see empty space tumbling into more empty space.
The names of the nearly 3000 people who were killed that day are carved out of the waist-high perimeter board surrounding the pools.
Martin told of a particularly Japanese way of honouring those remembered: Standing around the permitter of the reflection pools, we could dip our hand into the water and soothe it over one or two or more names.
Then Martin stepped back, under the shade of the Survivors Tree and waited for the tour group to pay their respects at the water’s edge.
Negotiating Presence and Absence at the Void
At the reflection pools, officially called “Reflecting Absence”, my thoughts returned to an experience, several decades earlier, of standing on the US side of the Niagara Falls, watching the powerful, surging Niagara River topple into the abyss.
The reflecting pools at Ground Zero are like four Niagara Falls, shaped as a square, falling in upon one another.
What if loss, no matter how searing or tragic, is, in Bill Spade’s words, also, “saving grace”.
Such is the claim of the Paschal Mystery – that God’s enlivening hand is always at work, even, particularly when loss is starkly evident.
Furthermore, the Paschal Mystery asks us to take our losses in hand and let them “ascend” to God.
When we place them in God’s hands, God transforms them and sends those transformed losses back upon us as the Spirit we need to live in the changed circumstances we now find ourselves inhabiting.
If the tumultuous Niagara waters are powerful, not only in the impact on those who stand there safely, a few metres from where the waters hurtle into the abyss, they are equally powerful in that they produce hydro-electricity, powering cities across Canada and the North East of the United States.
Which raises the question: what was powerful about standing beside the falling waters at Memorial Plaza?
My cousin Michael connected 9/11 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, 70 years earlier. Perhaps, at last, through the Japanese gesture of soothing water across the names, there might be some ultimate closure.
He adds, quite perceptively: “although probably hard to imagine for many Americans, it may foreshadow a time when we embrace Muslim traditions to help us deal with loss.”
Beside Falling Waters
My first impression as I stood beside or rather above the Memorial fountains, 21m (70 feet) below was “enormity”, yes the enormous size of the two fountains, but equally the enormous loss of life on 9/11, the enormous evil we human beings can perpetrate on our fellow human beings, and the enormous capacity of human beings to reawaken the Spirit, so that respect for life is reaffirmed, respect for freedom is preserved and people are inspired to end hatred, ignorance and intolerance.
Then I caught sight of the names of people who died that day. Looking down in front of me, I saw the name Michael Esposito.
I don’t know his age, his background, his family, his story. But I soothed water over the name.
The first name my cousin Sue saw and recognised was Denis Cross who had mentored her husband Mike when he first joined the New York Fire Department, 30 years earlier.
Water was gratefully, tenderly, reflectively soothed over the name, Denis Cross. Sue knew who she was standing beside.
Kate knew that her firefighter father Mike had reached Ground Zero later that day.
Many of his friends, whom Kate knew, had perished. So she sought out and soothed water over the etched names of two of them, Freddie and Rob.
Perhaps she also washed away the residue of a young teenager, 10 years earlier, listening to the names of those reported as missing, fearing that her father’s name might at any time be among them.
Mike himself noticed how peaceful the memorial was, in contrast to the actual day and its aftermath.
He commented: “As I saw names of people I knew, I thought of their loved ones waking up almost four thousand times since that day, wondering if this was all a dream, and then realising that, sadly, it was not.
“I also thought of how many births, weddings, graduations have taken place since then, with important family members missing.”
Richie, then deputy fire chief in the Bronx, and good friend of Mike who worked at Ground Zero on September 12, knew that same unrelenting uncertainty: would the terrorists attack again?
Remember, there was also the Pentagon attack and the aborted Shanksville, Pennsylvania attack which had Congress on Capitol Hill in its sights.
Uncertainty, chronic not-knowing were both playing in the heads of responders and their families.
My visit to Memorial Plaza is one of those experiences I will forever remember, for the simple reason that the memory is now sedimented in my bones.
Perhaps these reflections will cause you, the reader to ponder the survivor tree in your own life.
Perhaps you’ll come to identify it with the cross, also known as the tree of victory.
Are there not baptismal resonances in the pools of falling water?
May you see that all of life, its most awful no less than its awe-filled, are, in God’s mercy nothing less than “saving grace”.
Fr John Chalmers is Centacare Brisbane’s director of pastoral ministries.