The day those towers fell I was in a car, stuck in the heavy morning traffic of the Sao Paulo streets. I received a phone call from a friend saying, "A minute ago an aircraft hit one of the World Trade Center towers..." Annoyed with the pollution of the exhaust from the truck in front of me, I answered with little attention. "I am sure you have seen a new ad or some kind of candid camera show. This is strictly impossible, are you nuts? This is not South America, we are talking New York!"
On the radio, the news confirmed the following event, 40 minutes after the one announced by my friend. I immediately called my sister, whose husband worked just in front of one of those buildings. No answer. I called my ex husband who had landed in Tel Aviv, Israel a few hours before. There was no answer. I then attempted to make a quick call to my parents' cell, as they were at the Brussels airport boarding a flight to New York. I needed to warn them. No answer.
For a few hours, the despair of being far out of reach of everyone I depended on emotionally was overwhelming. Not knowing what to do or what happened was even worse for me.
Since I was young, I have had the habit of leaving someone behind due to my extensive travel and life paths: My parents in Europe, a new family in South America, my sister and her family in North America. I grew up knowing that every time I had to take a plane, someone in one way or another would be missed and someone else would be encountered. This threw me, against my will, into situations of great joy and at the same time great sadness as I soon realized the difficult task of being a simple human, so limited by uncontrollable variants such as time, place, and distance.
Those connections were lost for many hours. Finally, I received a broken call from my sister whose shattered and agitated voice mentioned from afar that she was leaving the kids home and trying to rush to somehow find her husband in loco. There would be no way to have telephone contact for a while. My parents left the airport security zone after several hours to return to their home. My ex husband did not manage to place a call until the following day due to intense traffic on the phone lines.
For years, at dinners and social events, everyone had a personal story to tell regarding that dark day in history when more than 2,800 people lost their lives in an unprecedented attack. I noticed that although not all were physically significant, the emotional impact from those individual stories - wherever in the world I would hear them - always struck me. They left inside me that same repetitive pattern translated into a visceral void, as if something was missing between what happened and what was going to be done about it. The variant? How long? The question? What exactly have we learned since?
These were apparently the same thoughts Lee Ielpi, a retired FDNY member who lost a firefighter son, Jonathan Ielpi, on 9/11 had when confronted with thousands of 'pilgrims' who came individually and in tour groups from the four corners of the world. They came to get acquainted in the shattered site with a sense of permanent loss and void. Geographical distance had prevented them from reaching closer and 'killing' at once that internal state of mind, while families and survivors sought to share it as a healing tool. Everyone needed to pay respect in loco to something or someone that was physically less tangible than air.
The completion of a permanent memorial, with a museum and Freedom Tower spiraling 1,776 feet high, was at least two years away if not more. The tree-lined plaza, featuring waterfall-filled pools where the towers once stood, would not open until 2010 and the visitor's center and museum would only be unveiled in 2011. " The time line reflected a more realistic schedule that became clear after construction began," said Steve Coleman, spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site.
An idea came up in 2004. The Sept.11th Families' Association created the Tribute WTC Visitor Center with the help of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation , the Port Authority of New York and a generous donation from Deutsche Bank. Designed by BKSK Architects in collaboration with a team of graphic designers and the September 11th Familiesâ€™ Association, the center was formerly the Liberty Deli - where many tenants of the World Trade Center went for lunch. The building was constructed in the 1800s, serving as a commercial store front for a variety of businesses and over twelve stories of residents.
The Tribute Center architects expanded the space to accommodate visitors by finishing the lower level to allow a continuous flow. Several small rooms were found during demolition that had been sealed off for years, including a cast iron spiral staircase. Beautifully patterned stained glass was also found, bordering the ceiling in two foot high sections.
The center is the sole space near Ground Zero where a visitor can hear anxious radio transmissions of a firefighter inside the South Tower, see a twisted steel beam from the Trade Center's core, and study the ID card of a husband who never got home. It has become a destination in its own right. We Ben Urizar, the Center's Press Attache, proudly told me that they have had over 900,000 visitors to date since the Center opened in September of 2006, an average of about 350,000 a year. Of these about 40 % are foreign visitors and 60% are US nationals.
The $3.4 million Center, opened in September 2006, was to be an interim space for remembrance and education. It's open seven days a week. Its 200 guides include those who were directly touched by the attacks or their aftermath. "They are all people who come from the 9/11 community," says Ielpi, co-founder of the center. "You'll go on a tour with someone who lost a loved one or...people who were in the buildings and got out. Who better to tell the story?"
The Tribute Center uses videos, panels and artifacts to help visitors experience the vibrancy of the World Trade Center before it was attacked - and the terror of that day. There's Jonathan Ielpi's coat and helmet and the shredded shoes of an aide accompanying then-mayor Giuliani. Visitors gaze upon a wall covered with more than 1,300 photographs of those who were killed, and can don earphones to hear testimony of survivors, rescue workers and family members.
The center also unveiled an origami crane donated by the family of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who lived through the atomic bombing of Hiroshima but died of leukemia in 1955 at the age of 12. Her story has been embraced by peace activists worldwide.
A 4 1/2 hour video scrolls the names of the dead, including those killed in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the victims of the 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, PA, where hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field. The center also offers a school program for students in grades 5-12, community programs, changing exhibits, and 9/11 community support.
In a downstairs gallery, visitors can leave cards inscribed with their feelings and thoughts. I got one and asked kindly if I could do it at home in front of my photographic shoots. I peeked through the 8,000 cards written in all languages, fonts, and countries, while in the same room a ceremony with some of the family members was taking place.
Among the cards, one particularly caught my attention: It's a poem from an 8th grader in Washington Heights, a little girl named Shannel Del Rosario. It's called "Our Gift." Check it out...
Remember when your parents came here? The Statue of Liberty was there. She stood there to represent that America cared. This country was called the new world for a new you and my parents and yours knew they wanted to live that American Dream!
Years later....... 2001 on 9.11.2001, something happened. It was a perfect day in New York City clear blue sky, it looked like May. It Struck! It just struck!
On that day those powerful numbers 9-1-1 What did I think? I was 7 at that time confused, scared, and shocked. Those Towers fell a fall from grace and those American faces never fade.
Soon it seemed
that "American Dream" wasn't to grow anymore
Two years later......... 2003 It's been 2 years right? Still I and America stood in fear. I was 9 and kind of knew but wasn't clear about the world to the east and something about war. It had been declared and all those soldier's stood and stared. America was proud and justice was made. Everybody voted, everybody cared. Even I knew and thought it was right to fight for our mother America.
But soon we forgot why she was fighting and the lives that were lost. That's what has changed. Our unity and humility.
2 years later...... 2005 Is this World War III? Who's Al Quaida? Iraq? Bin laden? Whatever it was America was shocked. I was 11 Not 7 any more and I understood just a little bit more.
I was proud to be an American. Our country will be protected. Our morality has never been any clearer. We have lost 2,000 lives but for a reason. No death in vain as Homeland Security became a household name.
2 years later.... 2007 What's the toll? Oh yeah 3,000 dead. But America our nation has become divided. Yes War! No War! Economy, oil, equality, freedom, frustration, disparity, our rights. All these changes America has had our country has begun to hate each other yet we are already hated by others.
One year later...... 2008 It felt like yesterday. Yes it did happen 7 years ago. Yet nobody wants more... war, that is. We all throw a fit; we all throw in the towel. We were all so patriotic so proud, so sure but now our nation has broken.
Like the Civil War. Yes War, No War! Wasn't America a gift? The one Robert Frost described. She was given to us and we broke it. Twice. Do I seek frustration and hate or possibilities amongst disparity?
I seek a new face with elections 08' An African American, A woman, A new hope.
It seems September 11, 2001 brought the "United" in the states, but only for a short time so let's return to that dream our parents dreamt, and our children will dream... to be united as we stand. Man, that day has brought change and we will honor those who kept that gift wrap from breaking.
Not in vain and not in shame. United we stand. America we can!
This Country was a gift. This Country is a gift. This Country will always be Our Gift!
Connections lost, connections found. After so many years, having the privilege to be invited to Tribute Center to be part of a small ceremony with families and survivors, I clearly understood what I should have done since the beginning. I needed to connect and be open at heart with those who were around me in my present, transcending the gap created by those who were temporarily absent or gone. Only in this way, I realized, could I connect in a stronger and more productive way, so that my presence could be the gift the universe provided to those in need, and finally reach the slow but certain power of my own healing.
The Center: Tribute WTC Visitor Center : 120 Liberty Street NY, NY 10006 (between Greenwich and Church Streets, on the south side of Ground Zero, next to FDNY Firehouse Engine 10 Ladder 10 - email@example.com- Tel+ 1.866.737.1184 - Offices:+ 1 212. 422.3520 / +1 212.393.9160 ext. 138
Check the photography website of my new friend Luis E. Chimbo who I met at the small ceremony at the center. He is a young man from Cuenca, Ecuador, but has lived in New York City since he was 5 and a member of the September 11th Family's Association. He's currently attending Syracuse University and doing a major in Art Photography. Next week we are going for a photography ride around town and who knows if I am lucky I'll get some of his teacher's inside tips!
Volunteer work : Download Volunteer Application form. contact firstname.lastname@example.org or Tel+1 212 422 3520 ext. 118.
"Families created Tribute Center out of Love" - Olivia Barker- USA today- Sept ,2006
Photo Credits: FEMA photograph by Michael Rieger of the recovery site at the WTC after 9/11