Ground zero could use a visitors bureau

November 29, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

NEW YORK - The crowds keep coming, day after day after day. They file down Broadway, noisy and expectant, until they near ground zero and see the police barricades and beyond that, the cranes and the scorched, twisted buildings and the fire hoses shooting streams of water into the still-smoldering rubble.

Then a hush seems to fall over them and all you hear is the click-click-click of cameras: cheap disposable cameras, expensive Nikons, digital cameras.

This holiday season, pilgrims from all over are drawn to this wounded city; it's as if they can't leave without chronicling part of the devastation for those back home.

"Used to be, people came to see the tree and windows," says a big, Irish-looking cop, referring to the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and the store windows with their wonderful festive decorations along Fifth Avenue. "Now they come to see this."

He shrugs his shoulders. He doesn't seem annoyed. That's just the way it is, the shrug says.

"Where were the twin towers?" an elderly woman with the hint of a Southern accent asks the big cop.

"There," the cop says, waving at the hole in the sky between the tall buildings a few blocks east. "Now they're 30 feet under the ground."

On this warm, sunny afternoon in Lower Manhattan, it was hard to look up at the clear blue sky and imagine that two glittering towers once stood there, and that two jetliners piloted by suicidal fanatics invoking Allah's name crashed into them and brought them down.

It was hard to believe that more than 3,000 people died in the nightmarish moments that followed, some by launching themselves into thin air from 90 and 100 stories up.

Around the corner from St. Peter's Church, on Barclay Street, the crowds press seven and eight deep against the barricades and hold their cameras in the air as they snap away.

St. Peter's was where the Rev. Mychal Judge, the popular fire department chaplain, was taken when he was killed in the first few moments of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Judge, a 68-year-old Franciscan priest, was administering last rites to a dying fireman outside the World Trade Center when he was struck and killed by falling debris.

His fellow firefighters carried him to nearby St. Peter's, the oldest Catholic church in New York, and laid him on the altar and covered him with a sheet.

They put his badge atop the sheet as sirens wailed and people screamed and an entire city seemed engulfed in chaos. Then they went back to the burning towers, these brave men and women, to help others, and many of them lost their lives, too.

Inside the old church now, another priest is delivering a homily as part of the 12:15 Mass. The sightseers come in, dip their fingers in holy water, bless themselves. They take a seat and listen politely for a moment or two, then rise and head back out to the perimeter of ground zero, looking for another vantage point to view the destruction.

All up and down Broadway, the crowds keep coming. It seems like just another day in the life of this city. There is this huge, scarred patch of concrete, yes, with all its horrible memories. And yet this being New York, life must go on.

Life does go on. Now, more than two months after the tragedy, you actually see cops and firemen posing for pictures with the tourists. Imagine that.

I had heard picture-taking near ground zero was frowned on, that it was considered tasteless, a breach of etiquette on this solemn ground where so much pain and suffering took place. If so, the taboo has been lifted.

"Come here, honey. Got a sec?" a woman says to a cop behind a barricade at John Street. The cop says sure. He leans over the barricade until his head is touching hers, flashes a big Chiclets smile, and the woman's friend snaps the picture.

The west side of Broadway, for three or four blocks, has been turned into a shrine for the victims and heroes of the attack. Flowers and candles are left on the sidewalk. Pictures of the victims are hung on walls. Banners are strung across wrought iron fences with inscriptions written in Magic Marker. The outpouring of grief will break your heart. The words of support will lift your soul.

Naturally, in the midst of all this, lots of people are trying to make a buck. Hucksterism is in full bloom. Near Trinity Church, consecrated in 1848, with a parish that is over 300 years old, a man squats on the sidewalk with some kind of toy rubber mouse darting up and down his arms.

"Magic Mouse! Magic Mouse! One dollar! Two for one-fifty!" he cries over and over.

An Asian couple does a steady business in elaborate calligraphy - you write down your name and the guy paints each letter on thick white paper in the shape of a fish, a star, a flower. Vendors sell sweatshirts, FDNY and NYPD caps, pocketbooks. A nearby stand offers framed photographs of the Manhattan skyline before Sept. 11, with the Twin Towers shimmering proudly in the background.

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