Emotions run deep at Ground Zero viewing area

March 26, 2002|By Michael Olesker

NEW YORK - The journey begins in darkness and continues deeper into the darkness. The light up ahead is death. To the left of the darkness are primitive farewells scribbled on a wall. To the right is a little church graveyard from a long-ago age when they still buried bodies one at a time.

The light at the end of the darkness is Ground Zero, the killing field for 2,800 people Sept. 11. Six months after the terrorist attacks, visitors still arrive here by the thousands. They line up on a plywood runway in the darkness created by the shadows of surrounding skyscrapers, and they come out of the gloom when they reach the light created by the sheer emptiness that once was the World Trade Center twin towers.

There are so many visitors here now that there are sign-up sheets to look at the big hole in the ground. Only 250 people per half-hour are allowed onto the narrow platform that leads to the spot. The visitors do not come to gawk, as some have suggested. They come to pay respects, and to mourn, as one goes to a gravesite.

On lower Broadway by the entrance to the ramp, they leave thousands of offerings, each crowding the others for a little space: photographs, candles, stuffed animals, children's signatures from Leicester, England, reading, "God Bless America"; a crayoned "Canada Loves You, America"; and 7,000 paper cranes from a junior high school in Matsue, Japan, "to express our sadness."

Many of the messages are poignant in their simplicity: "Dear Jimmy, I miss you more every day. My heart is broken. You are more than my brother, you are my friend."

Or this: "Greenwood Elementary School, Brookeville, Md., Mrs. Brown's second grade class."

Or this: "From your brothers and sisters in Alaska - You are in our thoughts and prayers, Local 1243 Carpenters Union."

Some of them read like yearbook inscriptions to classmates who never made it to graduation - "Always and forever," they say - or they read like simple souls trying to raise little pipsqueak voices in defiance: "They have taken our buildings, but we are not in caves."

The former World Trade Center is an enormous hole in the ground surrounded by construction trailers, but it continues to yield its dead. Last week, the body of the highest-ranking firefighter killed in the collapse, Assistant Fire Chief Donald Burns, 61, was found in the ruins, with the remains of 10 other firefighters and two civilians. Burns was carried out of the pit by his son Patrick, a fireman with Brooklyn Ladder 123, while about 300 firefighters, police and recovery workers stood at attention.

Burns was one of at least 48 bodies recovered from the rubble this month, though most of them have been termed unrecognizable by recovery workers who show up each day, and go about their cleanup, and are watched over by visitors on the platform high above them.

This city continues to struggle to its feet. The nation's unemployment rate edges down (5.5 percent) but New York's edges up (7.2 percent.) Last month alone, the city lost 14,000 private-sector jobs. Wall Street lost 2,300 of them. Around the World Trade Center, many small businesses closed after the terrorist attacks and did not reopen.

But the damage extends beyond Lower Manhattan. On midtown Park Avenue, the Sheraton Russell Hotel reported 20 percent occupancy last weekend, when normally it would anticipate a full house. Tickets are available for Broadway shows once considered impossible to see. A limousine driver who normally charges $25 for a ride from midtown to SoHo now settles for $10 and says it's his first fare of the evening. This, after theatergoers have already settled in their seats.

At the Museum of Modern Art, there's a new exhibit reminding everyone of the thing that happened last fall. The photo exhibit of shots taken by amateur photographers shows people stumbling away from the wreckage, covered with ash; a big cop leading a stunned woman away; a sign reading, "Have you seen my daddy?"

You have to stand outside the museum for a while. Partly, it's the size of the crowd. Partly, it's the new security. Everybody has to be checked to get into the building. Museum authorities worry about somebody attacking an exhibit about the attack.

And then you find yourself on the platform by Ground Zero, in the gloom, edging toward the light. There is silence in the gloom. People read the handwritten farewells scrawled on walls to their left, or note the little graveyard on their right. There's a tinkling noise in a tree above the cemetery, and you look up to see strips of metal hanging from a branch, perhaps something blown away last September and still hanging on.

In the little graveyard, the graves are unmarked. But it's not like those bodies from the World Trade Center, ravaged beyond recognition, still being pulled out in bunches at a time. These are headstones dating back centuries, their markings erased by time and weather. They had such luxury back then, burying their dead one at a time.

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