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Return to Ground Zero

September 13, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: In three years since hijacked jets swooped into lower Manhattan and destroyed the twin towers, cleanliness and order has been wrestled from a burning ruin. A historic churchyard once buried in ash is again a green, peaceful oasis. A side street that once ended in chaos and death is now opened up to a big slice of sky.

For all that change, this place– 16 acres in lower Manhattan– retains a kind of power; keeps a hold on the American imagination and the world’s. In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said any plan for rebuilding the World Trade Center area would have to take into account the fact that for a long time people would be pouring in from all over the world to see for themselves. He was right, almost from the very beginning. I’ve come back a lot since those first days after the attack, and always find thousands here, in any weather– foreigners like Dutch tourist Bernie Jones:

BERNIE JONES: We look at it far away, so we haven’t experienced what you have to had. And it was completely different for us. But we are very well aware of the situation. It’s not just New York.

RAY SUAREZ: Americans on a first trip to New York, like Richard Toogood and Larissa Maness.

LARISSA MANESS: I think everyone is very conscious of this place. It was publicized so widely. It was a massive attack. And it’s very important, you know, to get out here and see things yourself, and understand at your own level why things happen and what’s important.

RAY SUAREZ: And especially on important dates or days of ceremony at the site, people like Frank and Maureen Bosco, whose firefighter son Richard died in the towers.

MAUREEN BOSCO: I think it’s very important for many of the families, because we have no place else to go. We have no burial site. This is where we have to come to mourn our dead.

READING NAMES: Joseph Escobar… And my son, my loving son, firefighter Angel Ward, Jr. We love you, we miss you. We love you more today than yesterday, and we will love you tomorrow more than today.

RAY SUAREZ: Some struggle even with the decision to return. Maureen Ragaglia lost her son, Lenny, who was also a firefighter.

MAUREEN RAGAGLIA: Sometimes I do think about not going, but I do wind up coming. Last year, my son did a name for his brother. Now this year, my husband and I did the names. I just like being here with the crowd. Everyone has the same losses as I do, and they know the hurt that we’re feeling.

RAY SUAREZ: In this waiting period, before work starts in earnest on a huge construction project– skyscrapers, theaters and memorial parks on the tower footprints– the World Trade Center site is an enormous blank slate. People not only come to see, but to be seen– policemen from London, firefighters from Italy, people carrying homemade tributes to the dead; people who want an audience…

MAN: Danny Song was a sociable guy —

RAY SUAREZ: …To speak in tribute, to mourn, to arrive in enormous groups and shatter the air with the sounds of motorcycle engines. Over the weekend, on the third anniversary of the attacks, family members of the 2,749 dead headed down into the site, a secular holy place, for a remembrance and reading out of the names of those killed.

READING NAMES: Carlos Cortez.

READING NAMES: Kevin Cosgrove.

READING NAMES: Dolores Costas.

RAY SUAREZ: In the hubbub that followed the respectful silence, several survivors, people who got out alive and people who lost family members in the attacks, said ground zero will always have a hold on them. But some said they probably won’t be back next year, when this place will be a construction site. William Rodriguez was one of the last people pulled alive from the wreckage after the towers fell, and became a spokesman for the Latino families scarred by the terrorist attack. He said the advocacy for families will continue as construction proceeds near the memorial area.

WILLIAM RODRIGUEZ: We know that, in a way, it’s going to be phased out. So we are trying to seek other venues to actually deal with our grief because three years, ten years after we’re still going to have the same open wound. So we are affected constantly by this. So why wouldn’t we expect to open our voices and say, “this is our right to have something dignified and respectful every year.” And that’s why the families would like to have their own holiday, a 9/11 holiday. The families would like to have their own separate area inside the memorial so they can grieve.

RAY SUAREZ: When this is all built up?

WILLIAM RODRIGUEZ: Yes. And they should have it. And they will have it.

RAY SUAREZ: At this moment, ground zero figuratively and literally sits between its past and its future. At the south end stands the Deutschebank Building, seriously damaged by the collapse of the towers, caught in legal limbo between the banks, insurance companies and the courts. It stands empty, wearing its morning shroud and waiting for what happens next. While at the north end, the first skyscraper is already racing up from the street. Felix Sanchis of the Municipal Arts Society is fascinated by this moment of transition. The society organized forums all over the city after the terrorist attacks to talk about the future of ground zero.

FELIX SANCHIS: It obviously is not going to last. I was thinking of that as I walked down here this morning. In a couple of years, this will probably be a site heavily under construction. And you kind of look into this void, and it’s silent and quiet. In a couple or years, it going to be buzzing with activity.

RAY SUAREZ: Have mass murder and tragedy changed? Why has this place pulled people from everywhere to come stare not at something, but at an empty space? In four centuries Manhattan Island has seen death, suffering, and devastation many times before. Yet there is something different about this time. Historian Mike Wallace has been trying to figure it out, noting that New York was always a place fixated on the future.

MIKE WALLACE: The past was kind of a distant third after the present. And when disasters happened, the point was to get beyond them quickly. And partly this is a reaction I think since the ’60s and ’70s, when we, like many other cities, were visibly destroying our past completely and we were sort of fetishizing the modern, and we were cutting ourselves off from our roots, and we were losing a sense of place, losing our connection to time, to past generations. As to the specifics of this, well, you know, this is unprecedented. There hasn’t been anything like this. So there’s a new set of shifting ground rules, and I think it’s an understandable desire to commemorate it.

RAY SUAREZ: A few New Yorkers told me they can’t stay away. For now, three years on, for countless thousands this place still demands, still commands your attention.