faith and doubt at ground zero

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epilogue - ground zero

Americans are still searching for meaning in the space that was the World Trade Center. "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero" concludes with a meditation on the images of people jumping from the burning towers, in particular the sight of two people, a man and a woman, who held hands as they leapt to escape the smoke and flames.

Below are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a Catholic priest and theologian, and Joel Meyerowitz, an agnostic photographer who has documented Ground Zero. They are preceded by the words of writer Brian Doyle, which are read by Doyle in the closing moments of the film.

Brian Doyle
adapted from his essay "Leap" (read the full essay)

A couple leaped from the South Tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met and they jumped. So many people saw this as a scar burned onto our brains. But a man reached for a woman's hand and she reached for his hand, and they jumped out the window holding hands. I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers, but I keep coming back to his hand in her hand, nestled in each other with such extraordinary, ordinary, naked love. It is the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and tragedy. It is what makes me believe that we are not fools to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fire, to believe that who we are persists past what we were, to believe against evil evidenced hourly that love is why we are here.

. . . .

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete
Catholic priest and professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York.

a photo of albacete

... Just to see the inevitable scene again and again of that plane. And was it because they showed it again and again? No, no, because I felt it the first time. Namely, there is no closure. This doesn't say to me, move on. It says, stay. Stay and look. Stare into this black hole. Don't go away because this is going to change you. And I knew it from the very first moment; this was not the same. This was death in all its nakedness. Death. ...

The first thing I saw was horror. The horror in the faces of the people outside the building, looking. I didn't see the buildings the first time, when I turned on the television set; it was the faces. I saw their faces disfigured by horror, by terror. And then I saw what was happening. I saw the explosion, the fire, the smoke. The people jumping, jumping from windows ... unbelievable. ... And how many times have I been up there? The mere idea, jumping, and hanging from the window. How is it possible to fear what lies inside more than the horror outside? This is incomprehensible. ...

As I looked at that scene of horror, the people jumping, the people running away, the building falling, the flames, the explosions, was I consoled in some way by my faith that I was here seeing the passage to another kind of life? No, no, a thousand times, no. I didn't even think of it. ... I was dominated, seized by the event, that's all. No interpretation. No consolation. Just the reality. Later, later, the question emerges and faith comes in. But not at that moment, no. ...

To me, that image [of the man and woman holding hands as they jumped] is an inescapable provocation. This gesture, this holding of hands in the midst of that horror, it embodies what Sept. 11 was all about. The image confronts us with the need to make a judgment, a choice. Does it show the ultimate hopelessness of human attempts to survive the power of hatred and death? Or is it an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself that somehow shines in the midst of that darkness and contains the hint of a possibility, a power greater than death itself? Which of the two? It's a choice. It's the choice of Sept. 11.

. . . .

Joel Meyerowitz
Photographer who has documented the cleanup and recovery efforts at Ground Zero. (See an exhibition of his photographs online.)

a photo of meyerowitz

The first impression for me was the wild chaos of the fall. The complex, jumbled, steely, wiry, cabley, metallic mess of it, and knowing that in that unbelievable, extraordinary pile there were at that time, we thought, 4,000, 5,000 people. There was no sense of escape. You looked at that pile and just to witness it, to stand up against it, this looming five-, six-story tangled mass was something that no one has ever seen. It was modern disaster. ... The mangled quality of it puts one inside the fall. You can see your own soft, vulnerable, fleshy self twisting down in the dark and the screeching horrifying noise of it, and the compressing, mangling quality of it. It's evoked for me by looking at that.

In some way, the city has kept that back from everybody by ... not letting the public into the site. We only have our imagination or a few pictures that are more or less aerial photographs looking down into the site from a building above, and it looks like a messed-up parking lot. But to be there at ground level and witnessing this torrent of metal and to see the sharpness -- I think that's what it is, to see the sharpness of everything and to think about that sharpness against yourself -- it's blades and knives and swords and scythes, and it's horrific. You can't go anywhere without catching yourself feeling you're in the building. ...

I saw one of the last sections of the three-story module that was what the World Trade Center was built out of. Welders were working to take it apart so they could truck it away. I was standing right next to it and I could feel the dimension of one of the windows, how narrow it was, really not more than two-and-a-half feet, narrower than a door. As they stood it up to put it in the truck I looked at it, and the first thing I thought was, "Oh, people stepped out of that slit into space." ...

One of the most impossible and memorable images of that day was people leaping out of the windows, being forced out by the fire behind them, driving them, herding them out the windows. ... The picture I always see is of those two people holding hands, going together. You think about, they had 2,000 degrees on this side and fresh air on that side. What choice was there? Where would you turn? That they had to do that and take their last bit of courage and hold someone's hand and go with it was a nightmare. ... To see that image of two people, coworkers, strangers, I had no idea -- but that not knowing made it all the more poignant -- reaching out for somebody's hand to take the last step, that you would end your life in the hands of a stranger, plummeting thousands of feet to your death seeking a moment of comfort, is something that will never leave my memory. ...

I think that the World Trade Center site has achieved more than this notion of a cemetery, a graveyard. It's become hallowed ground because the people who have attended to the cleanup -- and I mean the firemen and the police and the rescue workers and the crane operators and the bulldozer drivers and everyone down there -- are so sensitive to the issues of this catastrophe, to the family issues, to the death of the individuals, to trying to find some remnant that could bring some peace to a family member. They do this in such a devoted, disciplined way. ... Every day they show up. And they're on their hands and knees. ... Their salvaging is the salvation that's inherent in the site. ...

I understood recently that this is the American spirituality. ... This is our national religion in a way, that we care about the individual, unlike those guys that sent those planes. ... Life was meaningless to them. ... So I think the site's hallowed quality is built up out of this kind of group understanding. This is what our culture celebrates. Faced with an enormous disaster like this, this is how we behave, and there isn't a false note to it. ...

I was down there at a moment that they were finding a larger number of remains. ... When I arrived, there were probably 150 men lined up in two ranks, going all the way down a hill into the site. Coming up in between the ranks were six firemen carrying a little orange plastic, like a sled draped with a flag, in which were the remains of one or more, I don't know how many people. But as they came up this hill, every single person along the hill took off their helmet and put it over their heart, saluted, did this traditional American gesture of respect for the dead. There was no one to do it for -- there was no press, it wasn't a public demonstration. It was for the dead, and it was for the workers and the firemen who coexist down there and who've made a life down there. And they did it over and over again. ...

You see the look on their faces, the red light of the ambulance blinking and you see these guys in the stress of having to bring yet another body, countless numbers -- who knows how many each person has brought up? But that weighs on them. It's a reminder, because they have to put that remains on that sled, they have to handle that, and some of the remains are beyond words. ...

If you go to a cathedral every single day and sit inside that space, with its smells and its tones and its experience of place, you would know something about what emotions are embedded in that space. This 16-acre plot is an enormous open-air cathedral, and if you go into it every day, you will be changed. It's a visitation. It's knowledge.

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