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. Philip

    @mike f...I hear you. The termonology was first used in print in 1946. "Ground Zero" was used to describe Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombs exploded. Of course it would be a misnomer if applied to a building or two that fell down from being on fire too long. Many believe that the 3 World Trade Towers were brought down by explosive charges. It would be proper for these individuals to call it 'ground-zero', but wouldn't make any sense otherwise.

    May 29, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  2. Virginia

    I also find it appalling that there are no obvious women featured in the wall that memorializes the fallen firefighters... I remember 10 years ago upon 9/11 hearing stories about the women firefighters who sacrificed their lives just as much as [if not more than] I heard about the male firefighters who did the same... this error in the memorial is absolutely unacceptable in the world we live in, especially given the history of September 11th.

    May 29, 2011 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
  3. Todd

    I was there a month ago and was shocked that after ten years it still looked like a construction. Also, they should never be referred to as "Legos". Lego or Lego building blocks is correct.

    May 29, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
    • sibmnyc

      it took a very long time to complete the search for bodies and it took even longer to remove that much debris. Of course, while all of this was happening, they needed to commission new plans for what would replace it. It takes years to plan this sort of undertaking. They didn't have "Plan B" for the WTC on hand to start building the second after the towers fell. They're doing a phenomenal job and these people are working day in and day out to complete this.

      May 29, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mei

      albatross: There was no inside conspiracy. Terrorists are the murderers.

      May 29, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • albatross

      @ mei, have considered my questions? I am an architect, i know how structure behaves, for you lay people the best example i can give is, when something hits you you trip over, you don't collapse within yourself, unless you are blown. answer my questions about building 7 and you'll soon realize the whole thing was a set up

      May 29, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Cesar

    Me too

    May 29, 2011 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  5. GJ

    We should all be very proud of the work being done at the 9/11 site. We are rebuilding and memorializing the events on this tragic day. We are sending a message to the world that the people of the United States are UNITED and strong. We will always carry on but we will never forget. God bless America.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
  6. torpedo

    Is it just me but does one not feel that this should never have been rebuilt? I was there a year after it happened and there was so much debris to still be cleared and there was so many families still holding vigils. Such sadness. Why not a large peaceful green space. Is New York that desperate for real estate? Just saying...

    May 29, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • albatross

      why do you think this happened to begin with?...there are real estate billionaires and war industry billionaires made out of 9/11. go research building 7, similar to the magic bullet of the Kennedy assassination

      May 29, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mei

      albatross: there is no inside conspiracy. Stop reading anti literature. Torpedo: I think the waterfall memorials are absolutely beautiful and well-done, however, I agree that office buildings should not be built there. I would find it difficult to work there myself. The idea, I suppose, was to show that life (and work) goes on.

      May 29, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • albatross

      @ mei, why can't you answer my observations? what blocks you from considering the evidence? I am an architect, I know how buildings behave, the way the three towers came down in perfect symmetry and at free fall speed can only be achieved by nullifying simultaneous all structural members, only..i ,mean only possible by controlled demolition. The whole thing is a set up. And it seems you may have lost dear ones in the tragedy..then know this , your govt. killed your dear ones!

      May 29, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Philip

    @Duh...actually we haven't been falling apart from within. Our government has expanded our economic borders about as far as they can go. Now they are turning on their own citizenry...taking away our rights and siding with huge corporations who enslave us. To see the eventual outcome, simply research what happened to the Roman Empire after it's boundaries were fully extended.

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

      @Phillip: Our government is the "within" I was referring to. They, along with the media are pitting people against each other. Americans sure are making it easy for them though.
      @Jazz: I'm not blaming God for anything, so please quit putting words into my mouth (keyboard). I'm one of the few people who is smart enough to know that I don't know everything. I am also one of the few people that has taken full responsibility for my mistakes in life, but I expect others to do the same. You defend Christianity, which is fine, but when is Jesus going to clean his own house up? When is Muhammad going to clean his house up? Religion often points its finger everywhere else, so nobody looks at religion. I can't wait to die and be judged by an actual fair minded judge, unlike all you holier than thou types. 🙂

      May 29, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jazzzzzzzz

    @ Duh that's what they did back in the times of that era. We have evolved to a more socially exceptible society of mans rules and laws. and God gave us the freedom to chose our own actions so don't go blaming him for others and your own actions.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thelma Heywood, Sugar Hill, GA

      Sorry, but although I'd like to think we have a more ACCEPTABLE society, I'm not that sure. Also, the grammar police person here says "choose," not "chose." What you said had quality – deserves editing. 🙂

      May 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Dee

    My daughter and I went by the memorial site not too long ago and it does still look like a huge construction site. We were hoping most of the construction was being done underground. The descriptions in this article make me want to return, which I likely will after September. The trees sound wonderful, as do the waterfalls. All in all, it appears that it will be a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives. I hope the reverence the construction workers are showing carries over to the visitors who will come through next.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  10. @albatross

    Take a look at the USGS seismology charts for the NY area on 9/11. Explosive charges leave distinct identifiers on seismic charts. 9/11 was the busiest day of seismic activity in the history of NYC. (according to the United States Geological Service) Those "blips" on the USGS charts were not caused by earthquakes.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • TheDman113

      Yeah, they were caused by huge buildings falling down. Shocking!

      May 29, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mei

      You said that well TheDman113.

      May 29, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  11. @albatross

    According to the USGS, 9/11 was the busiest day of seismic activity in the history of NYC. Those "blips" on the USGS charts were determined to NOT be due to earthquakes that are very rare in that area. That leaves building demolishion as the culprit. When buildings are demolished using explosives, it shows on theUSGS seismic charts.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. @sibmnyc

    NYC isn't filthy and smelly because of ethnic diversity nor cultural acceptance. It stinks because of your pollution, and it's filthy because you refuse to clean it up. NYC is one of the filthiest cities on earth, bar none.

    May 29, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  13. @sibmnyc

    Actually, the clean-up process was happening so fast, it interfered with the FBIs investigation. Virtually all of the scrap-metal from the three towers was put on barges and sent to China for recycling, even before the 9/11 Congressional commission investigation had concluded! The only thing that's taking this long is the rebuilding. NYC is filthy btw.

    May 29, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. @RUFFNUT

    Actually, birth-control was invented by ancient Egyptians who used crocodile dung as a main ingredient. (the acidic dung kills sperm) A Catholic nun on vacation in Egypt noticed this, and began making this ointment for the young nuns who were being impregnated by the priest's back in her native Germany. 'Tis true!

    May 29, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mei

      One can't verify such a story from so long ago, however, I'm sure there were disobedient religious back then. Remember, centuries ago, many men and women entered religious life for all the wrong reasons (women especially were often forced into nunneries because they didn't want to marry or they couldn't marry for some reason), so it would not be surprising if they didn't act like a nun. In the Catholic Church, birth control is not allowed, only natural family planning (which is basically being aware of woman's fertility cycle).

      May 29, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. mydogsays

    It's nice to honor and remember the victims of the attacks of 9/11. But what we need to remember most is that there has never been a real criminal investigation into 9/11. The official U.S. Government version of what happened on 9/11 is a complete lie. Starting next week this ad to reopen the investigation into 9/11 will start airing on many New York City area television stations. See it now at RememberBuilding7(dot)org. The victims of 9/11 deserve the truth and a new, real and independent investigation!

    May 29, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thelma Heywood, Sugar Hill, GA

      I have always believed there should be an open-to-the-public criminal investigation by both the Federal Government and private sector citizens – and I don't mean members of Doug Coe's Fellowship. Keep in mind that none of our media has ever told the genuine truth about the massacre of Christians in northern Iraq by the Shiites, put in charge by the George W. Bush regime. After all, the Shiites are the Party of the Taliban. Saddam Hussein, murdered by order of George W. Bush, had nothing to do with the demise of the WTC. Those Christians, by the way, had ancestors dating to the time of Christ 2,000 years ago. Their Masses were celebrated in Aramaic, the language of Christ. Also, remember that the supposedly devout Christian George W. Bush was buddies with the bin Laden family and had them flown out of the U.S. before they could be interrogated by the FBI. During George W. Bush's reign, our troops nearly cornered bin Laden but were led away from him. Why? And why aren't the fascist Bush, Karl Rove, and Cheney under the jail where they belong? I recall that name, Halliburton (Cheney's company) coming up as a culprit when equipment failed in the Gulf of Mexico. Halliburton made billions off of Iraq, as well. Hummmmm.

      May 29, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mei

      I think Thelma Heywood's been reading too much "anti" literature.

      May 29, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
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