A City Rising Within A City – touring Ground Zero 4/24/10

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One hundred and three months since 9/11. Today I was part of a group that toured Ground Zero.

WARNING: No pictures or film you are about to see will do Ground Zero justice. The project is too enormous. It makes you feel like a beetle scrabbling through several square miles of clockwork.

Feelings like that can’t be put into pictures. You feel them in your bones.

Our tour guide was Steve, an engineer with three decades in large-scale project planning.

What does that mean, I ask.

Steve was one of those guys who helped plan the Airlink shuttle connecting New York City’s subway line to JFK International airport.

If you live in Manhattan and use JFK, you know how important that shuttle link is. JFK used to be ‘the inaccessible airport.’ Now you can get there as easy as buying a Metrocard. Thanks to guys like Steve, the Airlink opened under budget and under time. And people use JFK a lot more instead of calling it names.

“That project cost $2 billion,” says Steve. “The World Trade Center is . . . well, it’s much more.”

WARNING: Steve has a gift for understatement. Beware of humble men wearing hard hats. Squint at them when they shrug off your praise. Planning construction isn’t easy. Guys like Steve make it look like it is. They’re magicians pulling doves from their sleeves. Some men are born to greatness. Some achieve it. Some draw up blueprints and build it.

Enter the site. You’ll know when you’re there. Through the tall security fence. Neon vests and hardhats required, and you’d better wear sturdy footwear.

The sounds of clanks and clunks and whomps will make your eardrums shiver. The stench of dirt and copper shavings mixes with clean air of afternoon. Machinery is everywhere. Chugging along. The clatter and bang. A dozen cranes lifting spars toward the sun. Pipes as wide as your living room march across open wounds in the earth. Steel grommets the size of a man attached to cables the thickness of elephants. All this hardware holds back forces whose metrics are off the charts. The Hudson River sparkles under the blue and not-so-distant horizon. The river is jealous. It wants the land back. It has since the engineers forced it out.

Whistles blow. More hubbub and whine. Tired-looking construction workers traipse past in heavy, clumping boots. Faceless masks under hardhats, mirrored shades, and two day growths of beard. They smile and nod. They carry strange tools. We are the strangers here. This is their world. They put it together bolt by bolt. A labor of love, says Steve. Many, he notes, lost friends that day.

One said he’d work til the damn thing was finished. Doing it for his brother.

 

Is all this activity necessary? Yup. Sure is. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is building a city within a city. Specifically, it’s constructing five buildings the size of the Empire State buildings at once. This includes Tower 1 (which most call the Freedom Tower), along with Towers 2, 3, 4, and 5. Finished total? 10 million square feet of office space.

WARNING: If you think this will glut the real estate market, don’t worry. The project is phased. Each building is scheduled to open like legs of a relay race. The gun has gone off. The first runners are moving. More come on line in stages to keep pace with the economy.

You look around, you feel the scale. We are gnats before a colossus. Some of the sights leap straight from science fiction movies. Marvels of engineering. The red steel legs of the Freedom Tower rise like a quadrilateral spider, dangling cables, conduits, wires, funky-looking machines.

Right now, it’s just a nub nub of a thing. When it’s finished, imagine this: 1 World Trade stands three times higher than next door neighbor, World Trade 7.

             

Photo on the left: the bare bones of World Trade 1 being built beside World Trade 7 (tall building on the right).
Photo on the right: the fifth floor of World Trade 1, approximately one hundred fifty feet in the air.

Yes, it’s true what you’ve probably heard. The planners preserved a thousand feet of historic subway line. I’ll say that again. A thousand feet. How did they do it? Oh, you know. They dug the line out and propped it up on metal stilts in a crazy balancing act.

“That was a pretty neat trick,” says Steve.

Deadpan, like Bob Newhart.

Yes, there’s a city built under this city. Twenty stories, in fact. All of them below the earth. Some day they will be stores and restaurants. High end places. The best in the world.

It takes us several minutes to wind our way through the corridors. Steve wants to show us the guts of the place. Miles after miles of corridors. Caverns. Halls and vaults as big as cathedrals cut underground, through living rock.

Steve tells us in his quiet voice, “The Port Authority has a great investment in rebuilding the Trade Center.’

WARNING: Steve’s not talking about money, though naturally that’s an issue. The Port Authority lost eighty-seven workers on 9/11. Eighty-seven members of its family. Some, like Construction Manager Frank DiMartini, surrendered their lives while trying to free other people trapped in the Towers.

A commitment to their memory, and all sacrifices made that day, was quietly stated over and over by Steve and others I talked to.

WARNING: It might sounds ridiculous. But no price can be ever be placed on having the right intention.

[SUGGESTION: You can read about one of the lives saved by Frank DiMartini. Pick up a copy of Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11. Turn to the story of Tom Haddad. Read. Reflect. Return to life with some new purpose in mind.]

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Construction at Ground Zero goes literally round the clock. The project costs $110 million a month. It’s keeping a lot of workers employed during very difficult times. But the most impressive thing that I saw was a total, driving commitment. Everyone wants to make the Trade Center better than it was before. Every facet of planning engages cutting edge technology. The past has offered its lessons, and people have listened. This might be the safest building ever constructed.

Where old codes specified Sheetrock walls, the new Tower has concrete four feet thick, and stronger by far than required. New plumbing and electrical systems have been designed to function even should the buildings suffer colossal damage. Dedicated staircases are reserved for emergency personnel. Higher grade steel forms the superstructure. Beams have been sprayed with the latest fire and heat retardants.

WARNING: These systems should not be put to the test. No buildings, no country, no families, no people, no lives should ever be put to the test.

Steve mentions that they still find remains. “It’s a very sobering process.”

Work grinds to a halt while remains are collected. Everyone understands what this means. Somewhere a family has waited, praying. Somebody finally gets to go home.

We’re a hundred and fifty feet up in an unfinished floor of Tower One. Steve points south, mentioning landmarks.

“That’s where firemen set up their command post. And over there, to the right? That’s where we found a great number of bodies, next to a staircase. Or it used to be.”

Steve notes that many nations have contributed to building Ground Zero. Depending on what source you cite, over 90 nations lost citizens that day. Even China, Steve says, has offered support. China and 9/11? Go figure.

WARNING: We can no longer afford to view 9/11 as a strictly American event. It’s bigger than that. It’s more important. Consider that body parts look the same regardless of nationality.

During the tour, Steve offered concepts I hadn’t considered before. For instance, tall buildings are never constructed. “Rather, they’re brought to life.” He means that plumbing and electrical systems come on line floor by floor. You don’t just hit the 100th story, flip the switch and say Voila! You make it work as you go. Like life. You take it step by step. Testing. Approving. Disapproving. Making adjustments accordingly. Yes, there’s a plan that you follow, but if something goes wrong (as it always will), you fix it. You make it work.

WARNING: Yes, this philosophy tends to work on many different levels. We lost a lot on 9/11. However, there’s no going back. As painful as it can sometimes be, we must focus on moving forward. I’m not talking about the War in Iraq. I’m not talking about Afghanistan. Where we should and shouldn’t be. I’m talking about resolve. I’m talking about a maturity that maybe our country can draw on provided we keep the past in mind and our feet on the ground. Celebrate, yes, when times are good. But save for a rainy day. We cannot afford the same mistakes we made in earlier times.

I’m a skeptic by nature. And critical, too. I have my opinions about the Towers.

WARNING: I don’t make friends when I say this. To hell with it. I have enough friends. It’s time to speak the truth.

I think the trials should be held here, not shipped up the river, or anywhere else.

This is where it happened. This is the scene of the crime. Let the venue stand, and show no fear. Let the accused stand before the people they’ve wounded. Let them defend themselves. All suspects get their day in court. A guarantee of rights. Let them have lawyers. Witnesses. Statements. Let them be fairly tried. There would be no greater sign of our strength. Our faith in our system of government.

Yes, I believe in American justice. I know that it’s hardly foolproof. But find me a better system on earth, and then we’ll hold conversation.

I’ve lived in New York for 15 years.

I was here on 9/11.

People always ask me, “Did you know anyone in the catastrophe?”

To quote the poet BJ Ward: “I knew every single one of them.”

I spent the following year and a half interviewing people who survived. Who made sandwiches for rescue workers. Who hugged a stranger who needed support. Who cut away I-beams, hoping to find a living person beneath. Who ran up when everyone else ran down. Who picked up a broom. A shovel. A pen. A business loan. An attitude. People who refused to give up. Who made a difference. Read more books. Who asked hard questions. Listened to all sides, filtering from themselves. Who tried to make sense of the senseless.

Why on earth would I do such a thing?

I was young, and I was naive.

I believed in a thing called history.

I’d hoped to compile first person accounts of what really happened that day. A comprehensive oral history of what happened at the Trade Center.

WARNING: There’s no such thing as a comprehensive oral history of anything. Especially 9/11.

WARNING: Far too many people, including myself, forget about Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The Pentagon.

Yes, I’m a skeptic! Yes, I’m naive! (Did I mention I’m critical, too? Such a bothersome combination. I’m no fun at cocktail parties.) But what I saw at Ground Zero today awakened something I haven’t felt in what seems like a very long time. A mixture of awe, humility, hope, astonishment, and pride.

Pride was the part I liked best. Pride that a job is being done right when so much is clearly at stake.

Yes, there will be a memorial. Without question, there must be a memorial. What form should a nation’s memory take? This debate has raged for years (one hundred three months, to be precise). I confess that I feel satisfied that a proper tone has been struck.

Reflecting pools in the shape of the Towers’ original footprints. Each pool has a bottomless center. The water reminds us of life. The bottomless centers remind us of loss. One cannot exist without the other, and all surrounded by trees which are — like the rest of the complex — state of the art. Trees that come equipped with microchip implants that monitor moisture and nutrient levels producing best possible growing conditions. Trees that will make the campus a place where people can go for a stroll. They’ll talk. They’ll joke. They’ll sit on a bench. They’ll look around. Wonder. They’ll dream. And Remember.

Maybe a handful (maybe more) will imagine the means to lead our world toward a brighter, grander future.

       

WARNING: This is not the same Trade Center whose ribbon was cut in ’72. This is not the same ugly campus that New Yorkers once lambasted as a mechanized atrocity.

“You see those two new buildings, Jim?”

“Sure did. They look like the friggin’ boxes that the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building came in!”

Not anymore. This is something completely different: a giant step toward life in a world whose values, like the cycle of life, spotlight what is recursive. Glass reinforced with a lining of steel. Form that is function. Green throughout. The Freedom Tower, when it’s complete, will look like an arrow whose nock is the past, whose point is aimed at the future.

There will be a museum to commemorate what used to be here. The things we lost. The people. Our tour walked through the cavernous space, crude in its earliest stages.

“There,” says Steve, “is the old slurry wall.”

A section abuts the newer construction to highlight differences. Similarities, too. Beside this wall, you can see a thirty foot section of an original column they pulled from one of the Towers. Along with other artifacts, the column was stored in a warehouse out by the airport, waiting to make its debut. They had to drop it here early on. It’s far too big to muscle in later.

                   

Another room. But wait. What’s this? 32 tons of staircase pulled from Tower 1 and set up here. They didn’t break it up. One piece. No one could bring themselves to divide it. To do so would beg a serious question. Which section could you part with? Which step is less important than others? Which would you say is worthy of being left out?

A staircase is a mysterious thing. It can take you up. It can take you down. It’s all up to you. Your choice. You can’t blame the stairs for which way you’re headed. The stairs just do their job.

Take a good look at some of these pictures. Take a good look, and remember. These images show the skeleton of what soon will be a living body.

Our children will see the skin and shrug, wondering what’s so special. But we will have seen the bones, I think. The stark and complex bones.

The youngsters will probably ask us questions. Tiny voices,  unknowingly glib. Searching for reverence, but not knowing why. The curse of ages. Of time.

“What was it like back then, when it happened?”

We should tell them what we remember. And bones, we should note, don’t have to be buried. Everyone has them. They bring no shame. Rather, they serve the living.

They’re what’s underneath. What gives us form. And some of them are unbreakable.