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. Jenn H

    @ Tyler

    78 – 86% of the United States are Christians... 2% are Jewish... 1% are Muslims.
    "IN GOD WE TRUST" – motto of the U.S. & U.S. currency

    Maybe the first few presidents were non-Christians, but the rest of them are Christians. We had NO Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hinduism etc. president. We also recognize and celebrate Christian holidays and cultures in America.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Corvus1

      That's the problem.

      May 29, 2011 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
  2. Troll Booth

    @Tyler...so which "christian" did you vote for? Funny how people put-down Jesus one minute, even laughing at his followers...then! they vote for a man claiming to be a Christian! This happens at every election, and there is no logic to it whatsoever. It's stupidity in action really. Idiotic even.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Duh

      I didn't vote for either. Your lamb devouring wolf God rigs the election every year. There's a cartoon I saw that had the devil showing a man 2 doors. One door says "da-mned if you do" the other says "da-mned if you don't" Why do you think there are only two primaries representing two major parties? To fool morons like yourself into believing you actually have a choice. I voted for neither this election because I belong to the 40% majority independents. Have fun wearing your blinders.

      May 29, 2011 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  3. There is no God

    So vote for Obama! He claims to be a God-fearing man.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Duh

      Only guilty men fear God. The good ones embrace God without fear.

      May 29, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Athiest

    Will my head explode if I vote for someone claiming to be a Christian? Will I somehow be able to tell myself that my vote for one of those stupid people who believe in God and morality was not a waste? How?

    May 29, 2011 at 12:45 am | Report abuse |
  5. fernace

    There will always be conspiracy theorists. Look at what Obama went thru with his birth cert & still people arent convinced. I'm glad they are finally finishing up the site & making it a proper memorial to those who perished. I disagree that it needs a huge cross or any type of religious iconry. That would be disrespectful & presumptive. Many of the people who died were of other religions than Christianity. America is home of people of many nations & religions & it would behoove us to keep that in mind when making sweeping statements. I hope the 10th anniversary will be both beautiful & poignant. Looking forward to it .

    May 29, 2011 at 12:45 am | Report abuse |
  6. Religion sucks

    That's why YOU vote for religious men running for President. YOU always have, and probably will 'till the day you die. With your mouth you proclaim "Obama won! omg, I can't believe it" while vulgar attacks on Jesus spew from the side of your necks. Religion sucks! you say, then off to the voting booth to help a "Christian" get elected. how retarded is that.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
  7. Peaceful Legions

    How can you people argue over something as trivial and useless as religion when the article is about the thousands who died? Selfish.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Garcia

      I agree with you. Is the same question i ask, why are they arguin for something that make no sence when the article is about thousands of people who died on 9/11 -.-

      May 29, 2011 at 1:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Lone

      You do realize you're swinging as far into the dim zone as those claiming the need for a giant Christan symbol on general memorial grounds, right? Neither of you have any excuse in not being able to bed reason and moderation together.

      Giant cross. Goodness sake, why not just build a golden calf for all the good it'll serve.

      May 29, 2011 at 1:26 am | Report abuse |
  8. nunster

    Brenda Berkman, And there should be no women teams or sports just for women. Just teams. Equal rights? If you want compete, equal rights should mean you have to compete against males to be on a team or anything. Woman wants equal rights but at the same time their own things that males can not compete in and so on. All the boys in school that can't make the boys teams should go play on the girls teams and claim equal rights. Sixism, racism. Get over it. We got a black president that does not even know his own roots where he came from. And more people who know who the first lady is but not the vice president.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:56 am | Report abuse |
  9. carla

    I wonder if we were a nicer people on September 10, 2001. We are so critical of everyone. I'd hate to think that bin laden succeeded in tearing this country apart. It is very sad.

    May 29, 2011 at 1:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Duh

      This country has been tearing itself apart from within for decades. Your always honest politicians and media has sold us out to the lowest bidder.

      May 29, 2011 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  10. kazz

    what's the point of being a "christian" nation with "religious freedom" if it means stupid arguments in a forum about a memorial for the death of thousands?
    a greater issue is the lack of female heroes depicted on the facade, and the current lack of public bathrooms ...

    May 29, 2011 at 1:25 am | Report abuse |
  11. So has there been a date set for the 9/11 trial?

    You remember before 9/11, when we used to arrest suspects instead of simply murdering them. When we used to present evidence to a judge who would issue warrants. Arrests would be made and there would be a fair trial. Yes, a lot has changed since 911, our newly watered-down sense of justice being one of them.

    May 29, 2011 at 1:35 am | Report abuse |
  12. c

    Everyone talks about the towers and the petogon what about the other plane there was three planes . They lost lives also and there family is still hurting .

    May 29, 2011 at 1:38 am | Report abuse |
  13. jj

    what is wrong with my fellow countrymen? anti-religion? really? have a good time in hell! all dressed up with no place to go? you had a choice...

    May 29, 2011 at 2:13 am | Report abuse |
  14. artistchd

    YES We The Public People Power Plan + Positive Protests = A.N.S.W.E.R. = "Act Now To Stop War And End Racism"!!!

    May 29, 2011 at 2:14 am | Report abuse |
  15. What was in WTC 7?

    Lotsa stuff, but no people. Tower 7 is where Marvin (the youngest Bush, semi-retarded from birth) Bush's 'Securacom' offices were. His company provided security for the WTC, yet YOU never knew this. why? Because it's not on the TV NEWS...and the Securacom Corporation dissolved itself the day after 911. How would you feel if the day after your house burned down, your security company closed-shop before you could even ask them a question? he he...you would probably "understand" somehow.

    May 29, 2011 at 2:20 am | Report abuse |
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