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. Qutubuddin

    Shame on USA, The biggest Lie of 2000 is Osama and WTO

    May 29, 2011 at 8:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Sam

      hmmm, you really are special, most conspiracy theorists remember that 9/11 happened/didn't happen in *2001*.

      May 29, 2011 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Saleh

      If Islam is a cancer on earth as you view it, why there are more than 1.5 billion of its followers who would rather die than giving up their religion?? Stop being a victim of the western media and study Islam first before making any judgement.. Peace

      May 29, 2011 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
    • ummm

      i mean saying that there are 1.5 billion muslims, and there are 1.5 billion muslims that would rather die than give up their religion is a huge difference

      probably should make that differentiation

      May 29, 2011 at 11:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Duh

      Well let's be honest. The reason many people in certain countries only read a holy book is because they are made to do so by their elders to keep them dumb and in line. It's nice to be spiritual, but stoning someone (condoned by christianity and islam) is not very nice, nor would a kind and loving god be ok with it.

      May 29, 2011 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • sibmnyc

      wait, when was the last Christian-condoned stoning? I mean, officially sanctioned Christian-stoning?

      May 29, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Duh

      @sibmnyc: Stoning of children is condoned in the bible with complete disregard of whether the parents are idiots and failed to raise their kid. An adulterous wife was saved from stoning by Jesus, so the contradiction is glaring. You can't have it both ways and God whom has infinite wisdom would never make such a dichotomy law, only flawed men claiming to be messengers of God had made that up. The Bible therefore cannot be the word of God and cannot be trusted when saying Jesus is God's only son and prophet on earth. Common sense escapes people I guess. Who cares if the churches promote stoning today or not? Once flaws have been exposed the whole religion has been proven a fraud.

      May 29, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cato

      That's just factually incorrect. Congratulations - you're profoundly ignorant. I don't see any point in arguing theology with you, but as a matter of getting the superficial historical and temporal record straight, you're doing it wrong. As a matter of elementary logic: If only people who are without ANY sin can throw stones and NO person is without sin, ergo NO person is permitted to initiate a stoning.

      May 29, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
  2. octopuss

    This article is full of drivelish fluff.

    May 29, 2011 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
  3. Josiah

    JUST REBUILD THE TWIN TOWERS!!!

    May 29, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Menza

      They sure seem to be dragging their feet building it, aren't they? A decade later and it still looks like a big pit to me.

      May 29, 2011 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Menza

      It took only 6 years to build both towers from groundbreaking in 1966 to completion of tower two in 1973.

      May 29, 2011 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Randy

      They are.

      May 29, 2011 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
    • sibmnyc

      Yeah, Menza, and I bet they winged it, right? Made up the plans as they went? IT's not like they had blueprints laying around to jump into groundbreaking on Sept 12. Plus they had to clear out city blocks of debris. This is NYC, it's like filling up some interior room of your house with 300 lb toothpicks and then asking you to remove them through the front door, one by one.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. kk

    STOP CALLING IT GROUND ZERO!!! That has waaaaay too many implications, some appropriate, others way off-base. It doesn't show adequate respect for the people from all over the world who lost their lives there. What is wrong with "former World Trade Center site, or even just World Trade Center? Or in this world passionate for abbreviation, WTC? Or whatever new name it is going by. This does not forget what happened, but IMHO, more honours the people than the beginning of a questionable war.

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

      Pretty naive of you to believe that the war only began after 9/11

      May 29, 2011 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
    • mariosphere

      Good point, sir. As an American, I haven't thought of it. It is time to retire the "ground zero" misnomer and start using something more neutral or more respectful. Otherwise, it's like calling an apartment "the place where an old lady was murdered". Also, dropping the GZ monicker will be a powerful way to break with the past without forgetting the heroes, the sacrifices, the victims and the larger meanings of that day.

      May 29, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • mwf

      Lenni, the 'official' war used the EXCUSE of 9/11 and that is not naive. I agree with kk. To call this 'Ground Zero' trivializes the immense crime against huaminty here, the thousands of lives that were lost. There is a movement afoot across the nation to stop calling it ground zero and use a more apporpriate and respectful name.

      May 29, 2011 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Menza

      Ground zero was coined by some dramatic CNN reporter, probably AC, king of media hyperbole.

      May 29, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • mike f

      Yes, PLEASE, we have to stop using this awful "ground zero" term. I've been campaigning [very unsuccessfully, I'm afraid) against it for nearly a decade now. It's disrespectful to reduce this terrible event to a buzz-word - something that sounds like a video game. If this interests you, there's a Facebook group dedicated to the concept, and the more members the better: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_149350281766527

      May 29, 2011 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
  5. Just Say'in

    Unfortunately Americans don't realize that Bin Laden won the war nearly 10 years ago,now they give up freedoms,believe in torture,believe in indefinite incarceration without trial,believe in summery execution.Once they jumped in the gutter and started grovelling around with the rest of the rats Osama won.

    May 29, 2011 at 9:27 am | Report abuse |
    • No

      first of all, the freedoms americans have given up after the beginning of the war on terror are no different than most democratic western countries.

      next, americans do not believe in any of the the things you just said, the sad thing is that you think that a few incidents define all americans

      May 29, 2011 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
  6. Corvus1

    The 1940s are holding for you on line one.

    May 29, 2011 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
  7. ironsman

    Tower 7 "looks" complete, because it IS complete. It was rebuilt as a separate project and opened in 2008.

    May 29, 2011 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  8. Lenni

    Of course you do, cuz you're a moron!

    May 29, 2011 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
  9. Jen

    Wow. Congratulations, you've held onto a racist conspiracy theory for ten years. Are you going to get a cake or something to celebrate?

    May 29, 2011 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  10. Truth

    Whatever,...keep your 'freedom towers' your 'memorials' your 'american dream', I'm looking toward living in New Jerusalem my eternal home not this babylon made of steel and clay and everything corrupt.

    May 29, 2011 at 10:01 am | Report abuse |
    • your an idiot

      oh come on grow up,

      stop using religious hyperbole to try and sound sophisticated

      somehow you relate building a memorial to an evil empire?

      idiot

      May 29, 2011 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • sibmnyc

      remember that time the world didn't end? Take your nutjob religious drivel elsewhere.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Matt Sky

    I with they would just build a memorial there instead of this tower. It's an interesting looking, modern building, but I feel it is is more respectful to the dead to build a gorgeous park there in hohttp://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/.element/img/3.0/1px.gifnor – leave out the office complex part.

    May 29, 2011 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
    • sibmnyc

      NYers want to get on with their everyday lives as a memorial to those that lost theirs on 9/11. For nyer's an office buiilding signifies returning to what all of those people believed in. There is a beautiful memorial going in to the majority of the foundation of the site, but at the same time, a hug park would be for tourists. Not NYer's and this site, as much as it is a symbol to the rest of the world, belongs to NYer's. We lived there, worked there, died there, and stayed there to clean up the mess left behind.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  12. citizen

    The sight of mitch McConnell makes me vomit.

    May 29, 2011 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Master Of Disguise

      Turtle Turtle!

      May 29, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. citizen

    Why would the good people of Kentucky continue to hire this loon. Must take a bundle of cash to get him elected.

    May 29, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  14. Richard

    It is really proof of the power of the criminals running America from behind the scenes that in spite of the fact that the majority of citizens now realize that 9/11 was a false flag operation, the legal system refuses to take action. Of course, given what they have to lose if the truth were to come out, it is not surprising that they are fighting tooth and nail to suppress information and discredit critics. For anyone who has yet to do the research, check out the website of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. I am sure that I can expect some replies to this comment containing "conspiracy theory" and/or "tinfoil hat", etc., but fortunately, intelligent people no longer fall for that tactic.

    May 29, 2011 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
    • TheDman

      Hey, it's the conspiracy loons! Who didn't know these clowns would show up.

      May 29, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
    • lagtat

      Shouldn't you be out on a ledge somewhere wearing your tinfoil hat?

      May 29, 2011 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Cato

      If by "most Americans" you mean various racist and religious fringe groups and developmentally stunted basement dwellers, then maybe. However - even today, "most" Americans are well read and possessed with critical reasoning capacity.

      Are you telling me that Bill and Hillary Clinton AND Barrack Obama AND Dick Cheney AND John McCain and every other US senator or member of the cabinet with top-level security clearance are ALL behind the scenes of this elaborate conspiracy? They all take turns pulling the strings of the enormous Wizard of Oz puppet?

      We can't even keep our snide (and brutally honest as well as accurate) diplomatic commentary off of wikileaks - and yet not one person ever came forward with reservations about the propriety of attacking the US pentagon? How does that make any sense whatsoever?

      Next you'll tell me we never put a man on the moon. Please, just go out and get a job and try to stop breathing through your mouth.

      May 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. citizen

    These round table participants sit in their bubble of privilege and wealth talking about the economy as if it were on another planet.
    I'll tell you what is bigger; the difference between rich and poor.
    The fake economic recovery is almost over. Prepare for a more equitable global standard of living.
    The change has come. The new normal is less for all but the super rich.

    May 29, 2011 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
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