Ground Zero, 2001-2011: How the 9/11 Memorial Changes Everything—and Nothing

10th anniversary of 9/11 a day of painful memories amid a shrine in progress

President Obama addresses the crowds before the opening of the memorial. (Getty Images)

It was a day of quiet grace, open grief and occasional grumbles, a time for solemnity, reflection and togetherness. The 9/11 Memorial was commemorated today not with the cutting of a ribbon but the ringing of a bell, the same bell that had clanged for the past nine years, calling out the impacts of those four planes, the collapse of those twin towers. Amidst the silence, there was only the echo of the bell and the distant rush of waterfalls, the signature voids of the 9/11 memorial.

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The sun had been streaming across the sky as the ceremony got under way, but as if sensing the lingering darkness of this day, just as the second bell chimed to signal the crash of Flight 175 into the south tower, the clouds set in, giving but a glimpse of that perfect weather a decade. It was also at this time, minutes after 9:02, that the memorial was opened, and families of victims began to hurriedly file toward it.

Many people complained of crowding and poor planning, but it could just be there was such overwhelming crowds for a reason. This was the first chance to visit the partly completed memorial, which was the primary reason many of the families The Observer spoke with had come out to the 10th anniversary at all.

Katia Carroll had come in from Beacon, N.Y., with her mother to honor her brother, Darryl, who had worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. “I am still in shock. This is my first time here and it’s just so real, so real,” she said upon seeing the memorial and the name of her brother and his fiancée, Angela Rosario. “Darryl and Angela’s names are together and it’s a beautiful thing. They’re always together, always. I ran my hands over his name–it was like a piece of him was there.”

A gentleman from Roosevelt, Calif., said he had not made the trip since the fifth anniversary, when he came to read out his brother’s name. Nor did he plan on returning again “until it’s all finished.” Though he had not been inside yet, he said the emotions, even with the completed plaza, were too raw.

“It does feel different because the memorial is open and the buildings are halfway built,” Michelle Fallen said. Her brother, David Ruddle, was a carpenter doing office renovations when the towers were hit. Ms. Fallens along with the rest of her relatives, had on custom t-shirts, like so many other visitors, honoring their fallen family. Theirs read “My Hero was a Carpenter/David Ruddle/Before He Became an Angel.”

Ladder No. 7, Big Tito, “Cantor Fitzgerald: United We Stand.” The homemade signs and pictures were just as plentiful, from Jesus holding up the Twin Towers to a middle-school picture of a woman named DebraAnn holding an oversized Sylvester the Cat stuffed animal. Also: buttons, lanyard cards, baseball caps, flags, bandannas.

This is how we remember, through objects, mementos, words.

“All these tokens and totems, it’s part of what we do,” Debra Burlingame said. “We do it to have some tangible thing we can touch, given we can’t touch them.” Her husband Charles was the pilot of Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon. She wore a patch on her chest made up of an American Airlines pilot’s wings pin over the number 77 with a halo above it. She said it was made by the D.C.-based crew to commemorate the loss of their colleagues.

While the memorial helped some, it seemed it could never help enough.

“You’ve got to let go sometimes,” Ms. Fallen said. “How do you heal if it keeps coming back every year. You bring the pain back and you have to start all over again.”

Sheila Stanley, who was here for her brother-in-law fireman Leo Smith, said she felt compelled to come even if it brought anguish to her and her family. “It still hurts like it was yesterday,” Ms. Stanley said. “Listening every year to everyone reading the names, I just get full up.”

“The 10th anniversary versus the others? It’s good to see new construction–which should have been done six years ago,” Bob Rosenberg said. He had not been down to honor his son-in-law in many years, his family preferring the Westchester memorial. “Hopefully, everything will have a happy ending here. They’re doing a beautiful job with the rebuilding, but it still won’t bring anybody back.”

After the event, all 2,983 names read, The Observer ventured out to Battery Park City, where kids were playing wiffle ball, laughing and chasing each other around. A mom filmed her daughter strumming a guitar on her iPhone. A good many families made their ways across the Liberty Street bridge over the empty West Side Highway, seeking some solace on the banks of the Hudson.

We started to see the deep aquamarine blue that had been used in the commemorative ribbons, said to match the color of the sky that day a decade ago, or even just this morning. Was that person an insider? Had they felt the pain? Were they in mourning? The transformational power of this place, even on a simple color, is confounding. Was it a coincidence the swoosh on those Nike sneakers were the color they were, or had they been picked out especially for this day? Kathryn Teare, who lost here son, spoke of “a little blue parakeet” that had been spotted up in one of the memorial trees. “I think God brings special miracles to our life,” she said. “That little bird made a lot of people feel better.”

Up on Broadway, the crowds were the same as any Sunday, except for the police barricades and officers. Outside Trinitiy Church, where the bells clanged nonstop, a group of Truthers had assembled, causing some arguments with defiant family members. But there were also your average street people. “Tell me your problems for $5.00,” read one man’s sign. Hawkers were selling 9/11 t-shirts and wristbands, $1 American flags. Century 21 was busy, and with not a few 9/11 families. There had been no terrorist attack. Nothing, and everything, had changed.

And, yet, look down any side street, and there were the crowds, thronging, craning, cameras aloft, for a glimpse at this once-drab, now-sacred place. It would probably be weeks if not months before they were ever admitted–the reservation list for one of the timed spots at the memorial is nearly booked that far in advance. But that was good enough. Like the relatives, friends and colleagues who had made the journey from next door and around the globe to be here on this day, they simply wanted to be close to the spirit of this place.

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC

Ground Zero, 2001-2011: How the 9/11 Memorial Changes Everything—and Nothing