By MICHAEL PERKINS
BEFORE THE ELEVENTH OF SEPTEMBER WAS DEFINED, for the New York Fire Department’s Ladder Company Number 3, by grief, the date had long stood as a milestone of devotion. Dedicated on September 11, 1865, Ladder 3 as one of Manhattan’s first fire companies, “the 3” was well on target toward its sesquicentennial on the morning that eleven of its finest perished while trying to evacuate the 40th floor of the doomed North Tower at the World Trade Center.* Death above was mirrored by destruction below: parked along West Street, the 3’s apparatus (ladder) truck was sheared in half, corkscrewed into a clawed snarl by the astonishing force of the building’s collapse.
And so it happened that one of the most poignant symbols of American valor was entombed, literally, at the epicenter of the nation’s most raw, most anguished loss, the geographic coordinates that quickly came to be called Ground Zero. However, the 3’s truck would not immediately serve as an official visual headstone, a graphic barometer of our loss. That day would have to wait.
First would be the accounting, the sorting out. As ashes were sifted and rebirth begun in this most vigorously contested patch of Lower Manhattan, the twisted remains of Ladder 3 were removed, the truck warehoused at JFK airport, silently sequestered against the day it would be re-purposed as a red-and-rust jewel in the reverent setting of the 9/11 memorial museum.
That resurrection and re-internment, a mixture of sacred fervor and steely defiance, would come on July 20, 2011, when the returned Ladder 3 apparatus truck, swaddled in U.S. and FDNY flags, would be lowered 70 feet down into the subterranean display space that serves as the nerve center of the museum. Now, before daily batteries of Nikons, Canons, and iPhones, its silent testimony can follow millions back home, the countless new images illustrating, as no words could, the full impact of history. Standing in as a grave marker for the thousands of human remains housed invisibly nearby, Ladder 3’s gnarled visage would pose as a surrogate, a way of marking valor’s Ground Zero.
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*Ladder 3, in firefighter parlance, was “running heavy” on the morning of 9/11. The attack occurred almost precisely at the company’s change of shift, with both first and second shift crews remaining on duty to combat the catastrophe. This horrific quirk of fate doubled the 3’s losses at the site, claiming the lives of Captain Patrick “Paddy” Brown, Lt. Kevin W. Donnelly, Michael Carroll, James Raymond Coyle, Gerard Dewan, Jeffrey John Giordano, Joseph Maloney, John Kevin McAvoy, Timothy Patrick McSweeney, Joseph J. Ogden, and John Olson.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS WEEK, THE SPACE AT GROUND ZERO marks an anniversary that is slightly different from the annual reverences afforded the fallen of September 11, 2001. Even as we put a little more chronological, if not emotional, distance between ourselves and the unspeakable and obscene events that tore the fabric of history on that morning, we begin a second era of sorts, as we mark the first year of operation for the 9/11 Memorial that tries so nobly to advance, if not complete, the healing process. The site, specifically the pools marking the foundational footprints of the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, is no less noble because it has been asked to provide an impossible service. Some things are beyond our reach, but that does not mean that the reaching effort should not be made. Something must endure that physically, visually states who our lost brothers and sisters were. And even a compromised version of that effort, wrested from people’s individual hearts and needs in an agonizing discussion, needs to be attempted.
Visiting the site just two months after its opening last year, I asked myself, how could we have done better, or more? Is there enough, just enough here, to fight off our lazy national habit of collective amnesia? Is there at least a start, marked on this spot, at trying to makes these names matter and persist in memory?
Every day, thousands ask that same question, and there are endless versions of the answer. It’s a gravesite, but a gravesite that is missing many of those being remembered. It is a memorial, but unlike most memorials, it is not located on a neutrally designated “elsewhere”, but on the actual place where the victims fell. It is a beautiful thing that evokes horror, and it is a place of horror where beauty is sorely needed to make going forward imaginable. Standing at the pool’s perimeters, you are struck silent, and you worry over the day when silence may not be the first response to this vista, as, properly, it still is at Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor. And we wish we could know that there was even one atom of comfort afforded by this effort to those left behind, many of whom were annihilated no less in spirit than their loved ones were in fact. If you ever pray here, that’s what you pray for.
Shooting the above image, I wanted to wait for the morning surge of visitors to clear away as completely as possible. I felt, and still feel, that the site itself is at last, a noble thing, and neither I nor any other people around it can help breaking the visual serenity it presents. My shot is also, now, a bit of a time machine, since the rebuilding of the WTC site is now nearer completion by a year. The weather that morning was flawless, in a way in which, on every other place on the earth, does not automatically trigger a feeling of foreboding. I wished I was a better photographer, or that, on that morning, I could become one, if even for an instant. Looking around, I saw many others making the same vain wish. And, in the end, I still feel that I left something untold. But, whatever I captured was at least my personal way of seeing it, and it was about as close to “right” as I was going to get.
And getting “as close we can” is what we have to settle for, at this point in time, in processing the events of 9/11. I am always struck, in reading the remembrances from surviving families and spouses, by how absent of hate and anger most of them are. They fight only to understand, to place it all in some kind of workable context for living. Many of us may never get there. However, life is a journey, and, today, as with all of the anniversaries of this tragedy, we have to hope that we can at least stay on the path toward discovery and peace. The memorial is the first step in that journey.
- NYC 9/11 memorial surpasses 4 million visitors (kfwbam.com)