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The North PoolThe North Pool

Reflecting Absence

Remembering 9/11 at NYC's Ground Zero

Traveling isn’t always about venturing to a destination with the goal of visiting the top-rated sites and museums or climbing to the highest point. Sometimes it’s about remembering. The National September 11 Memorial in New York makes you remember, but it also causes you to look forward as well.                   

I never thought I would see a young girl in full dress for her quinceanera sashaying around the 9/11 Memorial, yet there she was with her two younger brothers in tow of her flashy blue dress and confidence.  It seemed wrong to be celebrating something as joyous as a quinceanera at a place that has become what some call the “center of evil.”  

But somehow this girl thought that it would be acceptable to don her showy get-up and celebrate the good thing that was happening in her life that day, and she was not the only person on the memorial plaza celebrating something.

The Names

I visited the memorial on Saturday, November 9, and the Veterans Day Weekend holiday brought several members of the armed forces to the memorial; most of them in groups of three or four making their way around each reflecting pool and somehow having the courage to confront the most blatant reminder of exactly why some of them were called to serve.

Family members, service men and women, and those like so many others who only knew 9/11 as a tear-jerking television story walked the plaza and reflected.  They shared in the joy of the up and coming new World Trade Center complex and admired the furious pace of construction and rebirth happening at the site.  

My stomach churned every time I saw the name of a pregnant woman who died in the attacks, and unfortunately this was a common sight among the names on the memorial.  The process of locating a name can be done electronically on the memorial and each name is given a distinct space because for most of the victims their names are their graves.  
People searching for names on the memorialPeople searching for names on the memorial
The Design

The design is called "Reflecting Absence," and was created by architects Peter Walker and Michael Arad. Somehow, the designers were able to place every single name exactly where family members wanted them to be.  Each name was made so that the outlines of the letters are hollow which easily allow for tributes to the victims to be placed inside the names.  

Memorial workers place small white flowers each day on victims’ names that have birthdays on that day.  There were about five birthdays on the day that I visited and several other bouquets of flowers and tributes left across the memorial.

The steady stream of water cascading like waterfalls from all four sides of both pools created a brilliant reflection due to the warm sun that day.  The gentle breeze also caused the water to intermittingly spritz my face which causes the memorial to become even more engaging with visitors.  

Both pools are less than 100 yards apart and the further I made my way from the entrance the more tranquil the experience became.  The entrance to the memorial begins at the south pool where the South Tower once stood and ends at the North Pool, where the first plane hit the North Tower and started the chain of events that day.  

Visitors exit the memorial through the same place they entered it, passing by the south pool for the final time which was the first tower to collapse.  Names of victims of the Pentagon and United 93 attacks are A flower tribute left at the Memorial.A flower tribute left at the Memorial. also included on the memorial as well as the victims of the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.                  

The Atmosphere

The 9/11 Memorial was considered to be in uncharted waters when it was first designed since a memorial had never before been requested to memorialize victims of a terrorist attack on America soil.  

There are also memorials at the Pentagon and the crash site of United 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  The National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center, however, will be the focal point for memorializing the attacks which is why the victims of the Pentagon and United 93 attacks are included there.

The events of September 11, 2001 affected everyone in America in one way or another and the visitors to the memorial prove that.  As I made my way around each pool and across the plaza, I noticed children who were too young to remember the attacks, and even children who were not yet born on September 11.  

But I also young adults who remember the attacks and people from every ascending age group and walk of life.  Some came with cameras, others with tears.  And some came just to pause and think about how much their lives have changed since that day, from the big things to the small things.

Just before I was about to exit the memorial plaza, I asked an older woman to take a picture of my friend and I in front of the south pool.  It was an awkward question and no one in their right frame of mind would respond cheerfully, but the woman did her best and took our picture.  

After I checked the picture, I asked her if she wanted a photo of her and her husband together.  She responded, “No, thanks, it would feel too weird doing that.”

1 World Trade Center

But before I even arrived at the memorial, I learned something that I didn’t expect to learn.  I discovered that nowhere in New York City will you find directions to “Ground Zero.”  You can find directions to the “9/11 Memorial” or “World Trade Center,” but not “Ground Zero.”  This is because there is nothing that resembles emptiness at the site where the Twin Towers once stood like the number zero connotes.
The next generation of the World Trade Center site is now symbolized in 1 World Trade Center, otherwise known as the “Freedom Tower.”  At 1,776 feet, it recently became the tallest building in the United States as well as the Western Hemisphere and is set to open this year.  

1 World Trade Center1 World Trade CenterIt stands facing the Statue of Liberty; it’s almost as if these two structures were destined to eternally reflect one another across the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan.  The statue itself was staring directly at the Twin Towers when the hijacked flights 11 and 175 crashed into the towers and forever changed the New York skyline.  

The Survivor Tree

Only one tree survived the 9/11 attacks, just one.  This Callery pear tree was planted in the 1970s and stood near the eastern edge of the site near Church Street on that September morning 12 years ago.  When the towers fell, the tree was reduced to an eight-foot-tall stump and workers pulled it from the wreckage and brought it to a New York City park to be nursed back to health.  

Through a massive terrorist attack and severe storms in March 2010, the tree survived and today is over 30 feet tall.  In December 2010, it was returned to Ground Zero and now stands just west of the south pool where the south tower once stood.  The tree stands out in the plaza because it is the only tree on memorial that is not a swamp white oak.  
The Survivor TreeThe Survivor Tree

The rest of the 400 trees are identical while the Survivor Tree is taller and overshadows them, and today the tree is supported by temporary guide wires as it continues to take root.  The swamp oaks were all selected from nurseries within a 500-mile radius of the three attack sites.
This tree demonstrates the vitality of Ground Zero.  If someone who happened to have no knowledge of the attacks were to meander through the site and not pay attention to
 the nearly 3,000 names of victims on both pools, I’m not sure that they would be aware that so much life was lost in this place since so much life is now present at the World Trade Center.  There were people laughing and people sighing. 

Many visitors have no personal connections to the victims or reason to visit other than the fact that on that day everyone became a New Yorker.  Everyone had experienced loss; some on a larger scale like the loss of a family member, while others lost their sense of security, or became subject to longer lines at airports. But one thing that everyone agreed on following 9/11 is that 9/11 could never happen again, and this memorial poignantly encapsulates that mission.   Find out more about the memorial at 9/         


Dan Peltier is a freelance writer from Billerica, MA who first traveled internationally at the age of 17 to Australia and New Zealand and hasn't stopped traveling since. He studied abroad in Rome, Italy during his junior year of college and fell in love with the Eternal City along the way. Follow him on Twitter @djpeltier and visit his blog to read more of his work.

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Location: New York,North America,United States
author: Daniel Peltier
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