Like many people, I remember the events of September 11, 2001 more vividly than most others in my life. I was a young professional sitting in my cubicle when the first plane hit. Then the second plane hit and the office was abuzz with concern. Not fully comprehending what was going on, our boss let us go home early that day. Since I lived in downtown DC at the time, I decided to walk home rather than take the chance of something happening on the metro. In retrospect, walking across the National Mall to my apartment that had clear views of the US Capitol probably wasn’t the smartest course of action, but none of us knew that a third plane had that part of town fixed firmly in its sights. Walking across the Mall, I saw the somber smoke from the Pentagon rise up into the air and I knew then and there that life wouldn’t be the same. I later learned that I lost acquaintances in the Twin Towers. They weren’t family or even close friends, but I knew them and I felt their loss as I would any other. It was a tragic day, one I never want to live through again which is why it took me so long to visit the site of the 9/11 tragedy. Then, a few months ago, I felt that it was time. I felt that it was right for me to visit the hallowed ground and join a World Trade Center tour, to see what has since emerged and to pay my respects as best I could. I knew I didn’t want to just visit on my own, fumbling around and not properly understand the symbolism and significance of the site so I leaned on a company I’d used in other parts of the world who, thankfully, now runs world-class tours in New York City. Walks of New York is part of a larger company that includes Walks of Italy and now Walks of Paris and from my Italian experiences with them I knew that I could trust them to help me best visit this memorial and to guide me through my own, very personal process of coming to terms with the day the world changed forever.
The tour & experience
I was in New York on business, but had allotted some free time to play tourist, something I love doing in New York. That’s also why I was thankful that the ground zero tour was a brisk two-hours, really concentrating on the World Trade Center area itself, while giving those of us who signed up time for our own personal reflections. What will strike most first time visitors as odd is the fact that so much of the new World Trade Center is newly built commercial space. Walking through shops, transportation hubs and offices, it was hard to be reflective. But the was the outlier of the afternoon, most of the tour included important spots where the 9/11 story is best understood. From St. Paul’s Chapel to the Fireman’s Memorial and of course the Survivor Tree, the guide shared the real story of 9/11 as it happened that day and how not only the city but the world was affected. It’s an important message to share because, although I of course vividly remember the day, every year that passes mean fewer and fewer people will have first hand memories of that sunny Tuesday morning. It makes me feel old, but 9/11 was 16 years ago. That’s a long time. That’s a lifetime for those teenagers I see taking to the roads and that’s frightening. The terror attacks were one of the most traumatic events certainly in American and most likely world history, and it’s vital that the people who lost their lives that day never be forgotten and their stories never become muted. Luckily that’s the goal of the memorial and other smaller remembrances, small moments in time that the Walks of New York guides do well to include and keep alive.
What it all meant to me
While it was interesting to see the new developments on the site of the 9/11 attacks, those aren’t the places that moved me. I mean, they’re shopping malls and offices, which at first seemed odd to me until I realized that’s all the Twin Towers were in the first place. This is prime real estate in New York and this part of town should be returned to its commercial roots. But walking past a Starbucks really didn’t strike the emotional chord I was hoping for. No, it wasn’t until we reached the reflecting pools, the real crux of the memorial when the tears started to well up. Two 1-acre pools with the largest man-made waterfalls in the country sit astride the very footprints of the Twin Towers. They’re meant to symbolize the void left by the attacks and the waterfalls are supposed to mute the sounds of the city, creating a sanctuary of sorts. Inscribed on the walls of the pools are the names of nearly 3,000 people who died on the site. While I appreciate and understand the symbolism of the pools, the biggest impact to me personally wasn’t their physical structures, it was the fact that they sit on the footprints of the towers which were so mercilessly brought down by terrorists. It’s emotional to stand there, on the very site where these massive iconic buildings once stood and tread upon the ground that is now the final resting place for so many. I tried, in vain, to find the names of the folks I knew but eventually gave up, realizing that me being there was enough of a final farewell to them.
Afterwards, I ascended to the top of One World Trade, the massive new building meant to replace the Twin Towers. Standing at 1,776 feet tall, it’s built to withstand almost anything and at the top is an incredible Observation Deck. Looking out across a somewhat dreary, late fall city skyline it was impossible not to be reflective. To look out across one of the world’s greatest cities and to think about its past and future, the impact of 9/11 on it and the rest of the world and how, in spite of everything, it keeps plodding along. New York is a deceptively beautiful city, not in the way of a Paris or Rome, but a grittier sort of beauty. Once you learn to appreciate it though it never leaves you, and that was my parting thought as I left the 9/11 memorial that day. How in spite of everything we as the human race have been through in the intervening years since 9/11, there still exists goodness, kindness and beauty in the world and for that I am eternally grateful.