September 16, 2019

Maine group experiences the unimaginable at ground zero

In years past, a trip to New York City the weekend before Christmas usually meant shopping and sightseeing. In December 2001, visiting New York took on a whole new meaning for some people from Maine.

We went to pay our respects and witness the aftermath of Sept. 11 – not through a CNN lens, but with our own eyes. We went to try to make some sort of sense of the last three months.

The trip we took was sponsored by the Wilson Center at University of Maine in Orono and organized by Joanne Whitehead, the center’s chaplain. Four students accompanied us.

The purpose of the trip was to place the Wilson Center’s 3-foot balsam wreath at a memorial site near ground zero. Initially, we had wanted to help the workers somehow, but no one in the area needed volunteers. So our purpose became a pilgrimage, a memorial to those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks.

We stayed at Trinity Lutheran Church in the East Village. Our home for three days became mats on the slate floor of the church and an industrial-sized kitchen, usually used to feed the homeless and poor in the area. A graffitied wall across the street declared: “Now the whole of N.Y.C. is a war zone.”

After we arrived Friday evening, Phil Trzynka, Trinity’s pastor, spoke with us about his experiences on Sept. 11. He told of running up Broadway and seeing the second tower collapse and of the smell that forced some in the neighborhood to wear face masks until recently. He said the numbers of people they were feeding had increased steadily since September. He spoke of losing two church members. He told us about the weekly jazz performances the church sponsors to give people a place to come together and talk. He said everyone seemed to need to talk about their experiences.

On Saturday morning, we bundled up and headed downtown. We decided to walk the whole way, taking turns carrying the large wreath and walking the final blocks in self-imposed silence.

That silence became a powerful part of the journey. I pictured smoke and ash, streets full of running people and paper drifting through the air. I tried to imagine the more horrific aspects of the day, the pictures we didn’t see on the news, the stories people tell with downcast eyes and lowered voices.

A 7-foot-high hurricane fence covered with green mesh surrounded the area and hid ground zero from view. Holes had been torn in the mesh, but distance, vehicles and other buildings obstructed everything except the long arms of the cranes.

In the surrounding area, we could see blackened buildings, boarded-up windows, tattered flags and a hand-painted sign above the Burger King entrance that read: “NYPD Temporary Headquarters.” At times, we could smell smoke.

A little farther down, vendors sold pictures of the World Trade Center and NYPD and FDNY hats from tables set up on the street.

Strangers gave the students help and encouragement when they hung the wreath alongside other wreaths and thousands of memorials left by visitors and families of the victims.

I wondered whether we should have been trying quite so hard to see what was, essentially, still a crime scene, a place of recent senseless slaughter.

We walked down to St. Paul’s Chapel, home for the people who work at ground zero. The wrought-iron fence surrounding the church was covered with memorials sent from all over the world. T-shirts from other fire departments, laminated poems and messages from schoolchildren, fresh and weeks-old flowers, all sorts of U.S. flags, birthday wishes for a young man who never lived to turn 24, teddy bears, strings of colorful paper cranes and candles burning on the sidewalk. Every inch of space was covered.

Crowds of people filed by in silence; children complained that they couldn’t see.

Our group eventually left the area and spent the rest of the day walking back uptown through streets crowded with last-minute Christmas shoppers. We stood in Times Square and watched the words to “God Bless America” scroll across a huge screen while, from the opposite building, a larger-than-life picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono watched, captioned with the phrase “Remember Love.”

Katherine Major writes and works at the University of Maine in Orono.

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