Families create gravesites where towers once stood
NEW YORK — At dawn the kilted police and fire department bagpipers and drummers came marching across the Brooklyn Bridge toward Manhattan, followed by a proud and ragtag collection of 300 New Yorkers come to mourn their dead at Ground Zero.
Hours later, thousands ranging from construction workers to mothers with babes in arms gathered in silence on the Brooklyn Heights promenade to stare at downtown Manhattan and the hole in its skyline. And in Foley Square and Times Square, many simply came to a stop and remembered.
After a year of mourning, New Yorkers yesterday quietly reasserted a physical claim to their wounded city.
Bagpipes wailed, ferries sounded their horns as one, and officials read long lists of the dead as New Yorkers commemorated the anniversary of the worst terror attack in the nation's history. But at Ground Zero, as elsewhere, the crowd had begun to gather hours earlier, well before the sun rose into a pale September sky.
One woman was wide-eyed, panicked.
"Officer, you've got to help me," she said, scanning the dusty 16-acre crater that was once the World Trade Center. "I need to know where the north tower would have stood."
The police officer wordlessly took the woman's hand and led her a few hundred feet west. "Right here," he told her gently. "It once stood right here."
Weeping, the woman dropped to her knees and began to claw a small hole into the rocky floor of the pit. With dirty hands and fingernails, she stuffed a photo of her son and a letter she had written to him into the little crevice she had scraped out, then covered them with dirt, stones, a crucifix and a pile of multicolored, long-stemmed roses. In the end, the tiny mound stood as a crude, makeshift grave for a Sept. 11 victim whose remains have yet to be found.
Heart-wrenching scenes like this were repeated thousands of times yesterday as the families of those lost in the World Trade Center attacks walked, for the first time, on the very ground where so many of their mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, fiancés and best friends met their deaths a year ago.
The city had opened the site to the families with the intention that they would converge on Ground Zero with flowers and place the bouquets neatly into a walled-off circle. But, instead, they came bearing framed photos, candles, wreaths, flags, wooden crosses with names carved in them — anything that could be used to create individual grave sites in the eight-story-deep pit.
By noon, thousands of these attempts at marking graves dotted Ground Zero.
Even for these families who had spent the previous year attending memorial ceremony after memorial ceremony, funeral after funeral, yesterday's visit released a fresh wave of grief.
One woman threw herself onto the pile of roses she had painstakingly arranged for her husband, wailing and pounding the flowers with her fists until most of the petals had fallen off.
The morning's service featured readings of the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence, and the recitation of 2,801 names — a task that took nearly 2½ hours.
Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani began reading the victims' names as the wind whipped and the dust swirled out of the pit behind him like a geyser. By the end, everyone had World Trade Center dust in their eyes and mouths.
Deborah Garcia, 39, had never been able to bring herself to the place where her husband, David, died. Yesterday she relented, bringing her two sons.
"It feels like time has stopped," she said.
Her 9-year-old son piped up. Of the past year, he said, "It seems like a day."
As Giuliani finished, the relatives took over, reciting the names of their dead in accents that ranged from sharp Long Island consonants to the prim and proper precision of the British.
Later, President Bush lingered at the site for nearly two hours. With his wife at his side and his eyes brimming with tears, he embraced fathers, sons and husbands, and kissed mothers, daughters and wives of the dead, pausing look at photos they carried.
There were signs, too, of the extraordinary security thrown up after Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to raise the national terror alert. Police snipers stood silhouetted on rooftops, Army helicopters hovered overhead, and massive police barriers blocked off key streets and avenues. National Guardsmen and police tromped through the city's airports, and the Navy and Coast Guard monitored the harbors.
But few locals evinced much jitteriness.
Back in Brooklyn, Regina Benford sat on the promenade. She'd nearly been hit by the falling towers last Sept. 11, and suffered a heart attack. Now she stops by here several times a week on the way to work as a police fingerprint technician, to gaze at her city and meditate.
"I just come here to reflect," she said. "I can't worry if the person next to me on the subway has some bio-chemical poison. That's not why God gave us this life."
Some mourners walked back through the leafy brownstone streets of Brooklyn Heights to Ladder Co. 118 and Engine Co. 205. This house lost six men in the towers last year.
On this anniversary, families of the dead and the living gathered to eat pasta and sip soda and remember, a scene that was repeated at firehouses throughout the city.
A year has passed and there are jokes and back-slaps, and the young newcomers talk easily with the veterans.
"The older guys thought this was the end, that all their friends were dead now," said Mike Decker, who became a firefighter less than a week before Sept. 11. He smiled. "Now they say we're making them young."