Work at ground zero
May 28th, 2011
11:18 PM ET

Rebuilding, remembering at ground zero

Editor's Note: CNN's Soledad O'Brien and Rose Marie Arce were given rare access last week to the entire complex under construction at ground zero for an upcoming CNN documentary, "Beyond Bravery: The Women of 9/11." Here are their impressions after touring the site:

New York (CNN) - You have to walk downhill to get into ground zero, which is an odd feeling because the World Trade Center complex was all about looking up.

It looks like a noisy, massive construction zone from the outside, but inside you can see how much progress has been made as the 10th anniversary of September 11 approaches.

The public has gotten few glimpses of what's unfolding here, mostly during ceremonies or when dignitaries have visited or the waterfalls were tested.

Filmmakers, photographers and historians duck in to gather material they will unveil in the future. Architect Michael Arad, survivor of a bruising process to design a 9/11 memorial, says he gives occasional interviews alongside the memorial. The folks who work here are very protective of this site.

But last week, Arad gave us a rare tour of the entire complex.

"I've never shown anyone this much of this place before," he said, smiling down on his work. The memorial part of this vast complex will open in September, so he opened the doors of ground zero so we could see how his memorial and the huge buildings around it will balance the sometimes competing priorities to both rebuild the complex and remember the dead.

How do you build an appropriate place to mourn so many people and still recall what made each one special? How do you build an office complex - and potential terrorist target - atop a graveyard and still make it tasteful, functional and safe?

This was a chance to see if the visions of so many builders, politicians, landowners and architects had addressed the concerns raised in the rancorous debate over what to construct on what was being called hallowed ground.

Like many New Yorkers, Arad had spent time at the twin towers before September 11, 2001, joining his wife for company events at the rooftop Windows on the World restaurant and observation deck, and running in a 5K race along nearby Greenwich Street.

Partway into the project, he came here once on a rare quiet day to be alone with his work.

"I didn't feel alone, and that's when I knew this was what I'd hoped to build," he said. "This is something we need to remember together, where we feel accompanied."

Arad took us in and around each of the rising new towers alongside the cavernous pits, zigzagging past the arteries of power and water still under construction that will fuel the offices. Tower 7 looks complete, while others are more obviously works in progress. The buildings are covered in modern glass skins that reflect the piles of metal and stone, the massive cranes and the legions of construction workers at the site.

Occasional American flags poke out from pieces of gear, deep unfinished pits and some of the 140 swamp oak trees on the site (there will eventually be 400 of the trees). There is also a lone "Survivor Tree," a Callery pear where President Obama recently laid a wreath. An urban forest is blooming amid the concrete.

The trees take root among the cobblestones of the plaza, as comfortable there as the two huge reflecting pools surrounded by 30-foot waterfalls that will drip into the footprints of the fallen twin towers.

They recently tested the water with great success. The pools and waterfalls look nearly complete.

Plastic sheets still cover the ongoing project of inscribing the names of the 2,982 victims of the 1993 and 2001 terror attacks into bronze panels surrounding the two pools. One of the debates that raged in past years was how to group the victims’ names, whether by affiliation, location, title, family connections or friendships. They are grouped by where people died, with subgroups for their affiliations and even subgroups within those. People could even request who they wanted their relative's name to be next to in a complicated process that took a stab at giving everyone a bit of what they wanted.

"I want to make sure that the first people to see those names will be the families," Arad said, explaining why they remain covered. Each letter is cut into metal so light can shine through as water rushes beneath.

There is nothing you can compare it to, Arad said. You’ll just have to see it when it's done, after the families have had a respectful private unveiling.

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Earlier in the day we had interviewed Brenda Berkman, one of the first women to enter the New York Fire Department after a bruising lawsuit. She fought for the right to risk her life here. She charged over to the unfolding disaster to look for survivors and instead ended up helping to remove the dead. She faced her death there and watched friends and strangers die. She lost her peace of mind.

This memorial, this rebuilding, is about people like her. We are featuring her and several others in a documentary we’re producing called "Beyond Bravery: The Women of 9/11." It is the story of the women of ground zero, the women who came to the rescue that day. We wanted to make sure their stories weren't forgotten, and we're using their present-day experiences to demonstrate where the last 10 years have taken us as a society. We address the rebuilding, the lingering impact on the survivors' health, the war on terrorism - all the new issues we began facing on September 12, 2001. Berkman's story is about the meaning of what is rising from the ashes of ground zero. This rebuilding is about people like her.

Arad was thrown the heart-wrenching task of soothing the process for Berkman and thousands like her, designing a memorial among office buildings in a place where so many pained people had a stake. He and landscape architect Peter Walker were chosen from 5,200 entries from 63 nations after proposing a design consistent with the original master plan by architect Daniel Libeskind. Arad respected Libeskind's vision that the memorial descend below street level but threw out his plan to have the buildings hang over the footprints.

As workers built the memorial, office buildings rose around them, punctuating the challenge presented by the fact that people would someday call this a place of work. What unfolded in that sacred space, and in the debate over every little facet of the project, reflects an irresolvable battle over the need to remember versus the desire to let go and accept that people with no direct connection to September 11 will have a future stake here.

Only now can you get a glimpse of how the various construction projects have succeeded at making this a place where you can honor scores of dead and search for peace at the passing of any one of them, even as people rush into buildings for a day of meetings.

For a memorial design called Reflecting Absence, a bustling workplace has grown around it. Yet there is a surprising sense of peace. A dozing construction worker in orange garb lies at the south tower footprint, looking from afar like a tiny doll. Short, silver electrical poles almost disappear along the gray walkways, inviting a nighttime stroll. The last of the slabs of stone are stacked, polished and ready, alongside the few empty spaces left to fill - like Legos in a children’s project. The place feels nearly ready.

We climbed to the top of one of several short buildings that dot the site. They’ll house unexciting things like cooling systems, but now they give us a view of the entire project. It’s easy to figure out what was where, because the memorial fills the footprints of the north and south towers. You can figure out where bodies fell from the sky after desperate leaps, where heaps of rubble burned for months, where weary rescue workers carried the fragments of human bodies out of a pit of mangled history.

But that’s not where your mind goes when your eyes look over a grove of trees or at rows of neatly organized materials destined for future offices and striking museum spaces. The awkward tilting building at the memorial’s entrance almost looks as if it’s giving approaching visitors a bow. The place feels refreshing, a hint of the future with a tip to the past. It’s easier to envision what’s to come than what happened here.

When the buildings are finished, office workers will be able to enter directly without crossing the memorial grounds, but they’ll have access to an area that invites walking and sitting. These are not open spaces that invite major entertainment. As we look over the cleanest, neatest construction site we’ve ever seen, suddenly the deafening hum of work stops for lunch. A hundred little picnics break out, but not one construction worker is eating over a memorial site. A few rest on slabs and look up at the sky, and conversations break out in a hush of respect.

The scene is a window into what this place will be like when it's done. We’ve never walked around a place where so many people said so much with a quiet smile. The air and the sun resembled the weather of that spectacular September morning nearly 10 years ago, but all we can talk about is how beautiful the sun is today.

Across the street, Brenda Berkman gives tours at the Tribute WTC Visitors Center to everyone from overseas tourists to widows to rescue workers who come to see remnants recalling the death of close friends. The faces of the visitors reflect an internal debate: They want to see the images and artifacts of the horror, and at the same time they want to turn around and leave.

The center faces entrance No. 3A to the World Trade Center complex, across from the southeast corner of the site, at the intersection of Greenwich and Liberty streets. It is the closest you can come to the site on foot, in an area where any number of police officers will hustle you along if you so much as pause your car.

Like most people, Berkman has never been allowed to tour the actual site, so she shows tourists pieces of the past, disconnected from time. She watches the construction workers go in and out, and she yearns to see whether what's going on inside will do justice to all her pain. She looks into the site through cracks in the fence, just like the tourists, then walks away with her head tilted down from the weight of 10 years of heartache.

Berkman has a warm face but a quick temper. She has fought hard for so many things in life and suffers no fool. She is irked by a memorial wall along her building that pays tribute to the fallen firefighters but includes no obvious women. She is also gentle and artful and talks to each person touring the area as if she were showing them the gravestone of their best friend. At any mention of the debate over the use of the land here, she struggles with where she stands, wishing only that the memorial and offices would just get built already. Ten years have not erased her pain, only repositioned it.

Berkman said the 10th anniversary will be reassuring for her, evidence of a block of time that has passed, offering permission to move boldly forward. Looking at this place and what it’s becoming, we hope it will lift her spirit and force her to look upward and beyond, bringing peace to her need to remember and fluidity to her desire to move on.

We won't know until she and the thousands of others get a chance to take the walk we took. All we know is that once you descend into perhaps the most ambitious rebuilding site in U.S. history, you can't help but scan what's rising around you and look up to wonder what's next.

CNN's Vivienne Foley contributed to this report.

soundoff (205 Responses)
  1. Ellis

    BOOOORRRING! get out of the past

    May 28, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Christian

    Wow, everyone knows 9/11 was an inside job. I mean come on really? Just look at building 7. Open your eyes people!

    May 28, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • John H.

      Wow, when are people like you going to give up? 9/11 an inside job? Your sick! There is NO credible evidence that even suggest anything but the officail accounts. People claim the towers and the Pentagon were hit by missiles, yet we have video and eyewitnesses that prove otherwise. We have those claiming that NO wreckage was found, yet there are photos of large parts of aircraft being found. People claim the towers were brought down by demolition crews, yet when you look at all the damage the towers did to surrounding buildings it is clear to anyone with a brain that that is clearly false. Yet people like YOU continue. WHY?

      May 28, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Johnny

      Christian, Seriously? What is wrong with people like you?

      May 29, 2011 at 12:00 am | Report abuse |
    • fdjasio

      What the hell man? People died for their nation and you think it was the nation that did it. It was a horrible tragedy for the country and you think the the government did it, when Al-Queada admitted they did it. You idiot! You must be more stupid that Michael Moore!

      May 29, 2011 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
    • TheDman113

      9/11 Twoofers, the dumbest 5% of the population.

      May 29, 2011 at 11:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Here's What Really Happened

      Guy got tired of psycho succubus. Psycho succubus then possessed the body of a clap infected girl to give to guy. Psycho succubus then possessed many different girls' bodies to continuously give guy tinkerbells a for a few years. Guy gets clues from either demons or angels during that time, until guy finally figures it out. 9/11 was a metaphorical reenactment of those events. Hence the date 9/11 being the telephone # for emergency. Succubus will now spend eternity wishing succubus had never been such a vile creature, while guy will try and enjoy his life and afterlife. The End. 🙂 Chasing the dragon! Ooohhhhhh. Prophylactic tactics! Oooooohhh.... It sorta was an inside job.

      May 29, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  3. nur amabo nur

    Building what ?

    May 28, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
  4. nur amabo nur

    Keep an eye on who owns/leases big real estate in Chicago. Your next !

    May 28, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. nur amabo nur

    Getting demo permits these days is just to big a hassle.

    May 28, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • carla

      that should read, "too big of a hassle". Geez, can't anyone spell anymore?

      May 29, 2011 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
    • sibmnyc

      Carla, you didn't start your sentence with a capital letter. Also, your period should be within the quotation mark. Glass houses, my friend, glass houses. Don't waste your time trying to belittle people for their bad spelling or grammar. It doesn't add anything to the discussion and everyone else just thinks your a nitpicking nag.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Esmart

    Should've had a stick to put Osama Bin Laden's head on.

    May 28, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • fdjasio

      no we should have put him on top of the new freedom tower and push him off. That way he feels what its like to be flying to his death, like he did to thousands of people on 9/11.

      May 29, 2011 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
  7. Flyinglizards

    Shame on CNN...why do you allow these comments. We will never forget.

    May 28, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Johnny

      II guess if the comments aren't using vulgar language and aren't breaking the law CNN has to allow it. Freedom of speech must prevail. Even if it is from the dim-wits of the world. I don't generally read comments from sites because it's usually nothing more than a parade of mental giants spewing nonsense. And every time I do it reminds me why I don't.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
    • TheDman113

      Freedom of speech doesn't have anything to do with it. This is CNNs website and they can allow/disallow anything they darn please from being on here.

      May 29, 2011 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
  8. Matt

    There should be a big CROSS and/or big statue of Jesus Christ on ground zero. I like the crosses on picture 3! YES, AMERICA IS A CHRISTIAN NATION AND WAS FOUNDED BY THE CHRISTIANS.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Jesus


      May 29, 2011 at 12:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Tyler


      "Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise."
      -James Madison

      "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it."
      -John Adams

      "Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced an inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth."
      -Thomas Jefferson

      "Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause. Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by the difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be depreciated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society."
      -George Washington

      "Lighthouses are more helpful than churches."
      -Benjamin Franklin

      "Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half of the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.
      -Thomas Paine

      "I have generally been denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious I am no Christian, except mere infant baptism makes me one; and as to being a Deist, I know not strictly speaking, whether I am one or not."
      -Ethan Allen

      "The Bible is not my book, nor Christianity my profession."
      -Abraham Lincoln


      May 29, 2011 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Zero

      That would be a slap in the face to the Statue of Liberty.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Ditto

      Plus one to all the non-Christians who died.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
    • NoodleHat

      I hope you get hit by a truck full of crosses. I hope the crosses then fly out and hit a bunch of priests and reverends and other religious higher ups.

      May 29, 2011 at 2:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Smart enough to know God doesn't need a middleman

      @Tyler: Amen!
      @Matt: Go stone your child, but not your cheating wh-ore of a wife. Fool.

      May 29, 2011 at 8:55 am | Report abuse |
  9. nur amabo nur

    Name the structural engineer on the 9/11 commission and I'll name 1200 structural engineers that will disagree with them. Inside job or not the TRUTH has never been told. Remember everyone fell for the "Iraq has WMD's" story and where are we now on that front ?

    May 29, 2011 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
    • carla

      I have no idea what your nationality is by your name. However, if you don't like this country, there are plenty of other ones to live in.

      May 29, 2011 at 1:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Duh

      Stay put nur. Carla just believes everything the government says even though politicians call each other liars all the time.

      May 29, 2011 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
    • TheDman113

      Are you sure your 1200 structural engineers are actually structural engineers, and not just guys who filled out a form on a website claiming to be?

      May 29, 2011 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
    • sibmnyc

      Carla! You ended your sentence with a preposition! Now you see how annoying it is when people correct your grammar?

      May 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Julie

    I agree with Matt... they should put a huge cross at ground zero. God Bless America and New York City will have even more buildings and nicer! Cannot wait to visit ground zero when completed 🙂

    May 29, 2011 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
    • sibmnyc

      ugh stay where you are. NYC is one of the most diverse places in the world. We like it that way. We got that way by not sidelining other cultures and beliefs.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Tony

    Despite having the largest Christian population in the world... America still does not recognize Good Friday as a federal holiday... which is kind of stupid ! Hundreds of countries throughout the world does have it as national holiday, but not in the U.S. :/

    May 29, 2011 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Duh

      So? Who cares what the rest of the world does? Take a sick day. Move out of the country if you hate it so much.

      May 29, 2011 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
    • sibmnyc

      If we celebrated every Christian holiday we would never go to work.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Izoo

    As long as Jews take power of the U.S., this country would never recognize any more Christian holidays or culture. I'm surprised they did not get rid of Christmas Day too as national holiday. They got rid of Sunday Blue Laws in most of the country, as well as wishing people "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Easter". What's next thing they are getting rid of? Shame on Americans! Nothing against Jews, but they should not decide what's going to happen in a country with only 2% of the population !

    May 29, 2011 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
    • sibmnyc

      Nothing against the Jews... haha, really? You know that Jews represent 2% of the population? If you are so weak and powerless against such a tiny minority then shame on you. Jews didn't invent Political Correctness. Christians did, it just backfired on them.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • amber

      @IZOO- ok just because we dont have those certain days off. 99% of companies allow to people to take days off because of religion. religion really has nothing to do with this. they are rebuilding ground zero for comfort and to fill that hole in the americans hearts. what do jews have to do with this?

      May 29, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Catholic Priest

    @ john h. Can i baby sit your kids this weekend for u , my services are free , and u seem like a big time DUNDER HEAD based on your comment , u could'nt tell the difference between a terrorist and the easter bunny , u r just another typical american with your head buryed in the sand.. So can i baby sit your kids this weekend or what ??!! Let me know at my web page My babysitter is a Priest.Com

    May 29, 2011 at 12:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Duh

      Can you bring some candy Jesus suckers? Where's Chris Hansen when you need him?

      May 29, 2011 at 9:12 am | Report abuse |
  14. Ellis of anus

    Its all fake! hollywood did most of it. .interposed planes crashing into buildings extras running in panic all while the engineers blasted away. .amazing how they make things seem so real

    May 29, 2011 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
    • fdjasio

      please tell me your joking

      May 29, 2011 at 9:22 am | Report abuse |
    • amber

      that is so wrong. you do know how many people lost loved ones right? damnnn.

      May 29, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Wzrd1

    So, the memorial is to be a building that looks like it's built crooked and falling down, next to a hole in the ground.
    AND it is taking well over 10 years to finish, the Hoover dam was built in way less than half that time and they didn't have the high power equipment that we have today!

    May 29, 2011 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
    • sibmnyc

      You know what? You're right, we should totally have all major terrorist targets develop blueprints for their memorial and replacement buildings so that as soon as it happens they don't need to waste a second on planning the actual building. It is not WELL over 10 years. It hasn't even been 10 years since the attacks and even then, do you think that when entire city blocks collapse on themselves with people inside it doesn't take a significant amount of time to search for bodies and remove debris? I guess when your only building experience comes from Farmville then yea, it would seem like this is taking a long time.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
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