From The Mayor's Desk





















Hallowed Ground


Pam, our son Joe, and I took a trip of a lifetime last month.  None of us had ever been to New York (until recently I had never had any desire to go), but with the events of the last year, and with the Anthony/New York connection that has been forged, we had to go.  I especially had to go to Ground Zero.  For a month I’ve struggled with how to describe our trip.  Finally, I decided to just write it.  Following is my feeble attempt to describe the indescribable.


We flew into Newark and FDNY Lt. Joe Huber (the fireman who came and visited us in March) picked us up.  He had just finished playing a football game (the firemen beat the police) and we, with the ease of familiar old friends, picked up where we left off in March.  Away we went in his Volvo station wagon towards Manhattan.  Newark is on the west side of the Hudson River, and to get to Manhattan, we went through the Holland Tunnel under the river.  The whole way through the tunnel, which is about 2 miles long, Joe was telling us that it was an identified target for terrorist attacks and how the New York police were really keeping a tight watch on it.  When we finally emerged into the sunlight on the Manhattan side, I swear I heard Pam breathe a long sigh of relief.


Manhattan was incredible!  Everywhere we looked there were huge, tall buildings towering over streets filled with taxis, cars, and pedestrians.  The only sunlight visible was by looking up, which made it impossible for this Kansas guy to keep any sense of direction.  The traffic, honking horns, and the way people drove made me real glad that Joe was driving.  We twisted around through several streets and turns until we came to a sidewalk upon which we parked the car.


Several times on the phone and in e-mails Joe had told me how much he hated going back down to Ground Zero.  He said it just seemed to suck the life out of him and that when he was there everything came back just as if he were living it again: the noise, the stench, the exhaustion, the feeling of utter helplessness and inadequacy.  Knowing this, I had told him that we could find our own way to Ground Zero so he wouldn’t have to take us.  Again that afternoon, I asked him just to let us go there on our own.  He shook his head and said, “I have to take you.  After everything you folks have done for us, it’s only right that I be able to explain what happened and where it happened”.  So we started walking the 2 or 3 blocks towards the site.


Nothing I can say will adequately describe Ground Zero.  Surrounding the site are huge, beautiful, glass-covered buildings that look brand new.  Closer scrutiny reveals, however, gouges, scrapes, and small imperfections.  Some of the buildings look like they’re built out of black marble, but when you get closer you realize they’re draped in a black mesh netting that hangs down the entire 30 or 50 stories like a black veil of mourning.  Joe said the netting keeps debris from repairs falling straight down to the ground and not out into the street.  And when you look closer, behind the black mesh, you realize you are looking right into offices complete with computers, desks, filing cabinets and chairs.  You realize that on that terrible day people were sitting in those chairs in the privacy of their offices and suddenly a falling Tower ripped away the exterior walls leaving everything exposed for all to see.  And you realize that the occupants of those offices haven’t been back since September 11, 2001.  I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to them.


Ground Zero itself is fenced off.  Walking up to the fence, Joe pointed out the cross formed out of beams that they discovered during the clean-up.  That cross became a rallying point and on Sundays the recovery teams worshipped under its outstretched arms. 


We walked around the entire, huge site.  Picture if you can tall buildings, some draped in black, pressed together so tightly that the sunlight can’t filter down to the streets below except at high noon.  And in the midst of all this towering steel and glass, a sudden 6 acre expanse of emptiness.  On one side is a hole, 10 to 12 stories deep, where the construction companies are rebuilding the subway back under the Hudson River to New Jersey.  Separating this hole from a shallower, second hole is a wall with huge steel spikes driven at an angle into the dirt.  Joe explained that early into the recovery water from the river started seeping into the hole and there was a real danger that the wall would cave in so they pounded in these spikes to shore the wall up.  We stared down into this yawning depth and the devastation became more real and incredible as Joe told us that on top of this hole was another sixty feet pile of debris.  He described how treacherous the Pile was to climb around on, with seemingly solid footing shifting away into emptiness.  He described the voids within the pile where he would drop something to gauge the depth and never hear it hit bottom.  He described the two-month old fires burning deep within the pile so hot that steel beams 40 feet away would burn ungloved hands.  He wondered what would fuel a fire for that long after millions of gallons of water had been poured on it.  He described what it was like to have to use smell and touch to distinguish body parts from other material.     


The Joe Huber I remember from March in Anthony was lively, energetic, friendly, and animated.  That overcast afternoon at Ground Zero, I saw him physically change before my eyes.  Gone was the confident, energetic stride; in its place was a tired, drooping gait.  Gone were the bright, twinkling eyes; in their place was sadness and exhaustion.  Gone was the booming, laughing voice; in its place were softness, seriousness, and much silence.  Our friend has seen too much sorrow; experienced too much pain; and exposed himself to too much danger and death.  They say time heals all wounds.  I wonder if there is enough time to heal the wounds caused at Ground Zero.


After walking, with thousands of other people, around the whole site, Joe said he wanted to show us one more place.  Across the street from the hole, surrounded by huge, tall, modern buildings is a small, old church.  St. Paul’s Chapel is where George Washington worshipped and where, on September 11, the firemen carried Father Mychal Judge in that now-famous photograph.  Miraculously it was untouched by the falling Towers.  Surrounding the church and small graveyard is an 8-foot tall wrought iron fence.  It very quickly became apparent that this fence is the “Wall” of Ground Zero.  Every inch is covered with flowers, cards, posters, flags, banners, pictures, tee shirts, and hats.  Some of the items are badly weathered and worn; others are bright and brand new.  As I walked around it, the universal enormity of what had been thrust upon us that day became overwhelmingly apparent.  It seemed like people from every country in the world had walked around the same fence I was walking around and taken items that they cherished and hung them on the fence as their way of showing outrage and sorrow at this attack on American values.  This was how they could mourn and pay respect to the horrific loss of innocent lives.  I wanted to hang something on the wall, but didn’t have anything from Anthony I could place.  I think I’ll send Joe a shirt or something and ask him to hang it there for us.


The inside of the church was beautiful.  It had just been re-painted white, gold, and sky-blue.  I noticed that the benches, which were white, hadn’t been re-painted, and were covered in black streaks, gouges, and scuffmarks.  Joe explained that for 8 months or so the church was closed to the general public and set up as a place the firemen and recovery workers would go to take a break.  Cots, food, counseling, and massages were available 24 hours a day.  The scuff marks and other damages to the pews were caused by the recovery workers resting and the church elders decided to leave them as a tangible reminder of the aid and comfort the church was able to provide.  Just as we were leaving, Joe told us how one night at about midnight he had gone in and sit down to rest.  A lady walked in off the street, pulled up a chair in the front, and started playing her violin.  He said he had never heard such beautiful music; it seemed to reach into his soul and revive him to go back out to the awful task he had to perform. 


The old Joe returned when we left Ground Zero.  I’ll never forget the way he was able to describe what happened there.  Recently I read a book titled American Ground by William Langewiesche.  It describes the remarkable feat that was the unbuilding of the World Trade Center.  But the book and all the pictures and second-hand accounts in the world could never adequately present the vast awesomeness of this place.  Like Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, and Oklahoma City, Ground Zero is Hallowed Ground.  It is hallowed by the blood of those who perished in the ongoing struggle of good versus evil.  It is hallowed by the sweat and tears of the ordinary firemen and construction workers who tore at the Pile in their struggle to remove the debris of war and recover the bodies of the innocent.  It is hallowed by the nightmares and the sadness that attaches itself every day to those who fought there.  It is the latest American Hallowed Ground.


Last modified:  September 23, 2010  

Copyright 2002 Anthony 9-11 Memorial Committee

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