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. Byrd

    Why is the access rare? They already removed all of the gold bullion that was secretly stashed in the basements of those buildings, but they never quite stated where all of that gold came from or to whom it belonged.

    May 29, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Thelma Heywood, Sugar Hill, GA

    Excuse my confusion, but I still fail to understand what birth control and the WTC have in common.

    However, if you want to practice that in a natural way, try having your better half suck on three leaves of the herb Stevia. It's what the native Americans (First Nations) did. It works.

    May 29, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Matthew

    Everybody knowns 9/11 was done by construction companies ;D

    May 29, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Cesar

    New York smells like urine and the towelhead taxi drivers smell bad. New York is the sweaty butt crack of America.
    Nuke Islam!

    May 29, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Uncle Sam

    The fire destroyed the black boxes and flight recorders, but not the plastic passports. Please believe your uncle Sam. He wouldn't and never has lied to you. (wink)

    May 29, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Cesar


    May 29, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Cesar

    It's funny how when it came to 9/11,we were a bunch of bed-wetting crybabies but yet back on Feb.13,1991 when two of our pilots blew over Baghdad,Iraq in an F-117 bomber dropped one or two bombs on the Amriya air raid shelter killing at least 414 civilians,eveybody thought that that was allright. What a double standard we practice!!!

    May 29, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • George Patton

      Yours is one of the most sensible posts I've seen here yet,Cesar. I couldn't have said it better and just ignore all these uneducated nitwits here who are just trying to be funny. I well remember the following day as I saw a man mourn his horrific loss as his entire family parrished in that air raid!!!

      May 29, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Philip

    The USGS knows it was explosive charges that brought down all three towers. You can side-by-side watch the USGS chart blip as every tell-tale puff of smoke blows out a floors windows if you zoom-in on the upper floors. You really can! Seismic charts and tell-tale puffs of smoke are not 'conspiracy theories', they are factual evidences.

    May 29, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ms. Geek

    I still think the office building is tasteless. The 9/11 memorial is beautiful, but it should not have to compete with endless commerce over hallowed ground. They should have taken a lesson from Oklahoma City and transformed the site into a public memorial park. But hey, commerce uber alles in the good ole US of A. The invisible hand raises its middle finger to the people lost in 9/11. Did you know there was a makeshift mosque in one of the twin towers? Yes, one of the rooms of the building was a home to people who would gather there for Friday prayers. And people were more incensed about "the Ground Zero Mosque" (more like the Ground Zero YMCA or Ground Zero JCC but for Muslim youth) then they are about the desecration of sacred ground in the name of filthy lucre.

    May 29, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  10. @Ms Geek

    The YMCA does not teach kids to defend their homeland against the invading infidels. That sort of thing is taught at Muslim Mosques and in the Koran. The YMCA teaches the exact opposite...that it's OK to invade a foreign land and plunder it's resources. And that God himself is behind US military tactics. How could you possibly confuse the two?

    May 29, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio)

    It's drier in here than "happy hour" at the Betty Ford clinic. 😉

    May 29, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. @Cesar

    Over a million and a half of Iraq's citizens have been murdered during this occupation. Western peoples simply do not understand that these Muslim peoples religion forbids them to side with the invaders. Do not our own laws mirror this? If we were to be invaded and occupied, we would do more than plant a few roadside bombs ya know. These people are defending their land and resources against the invaders, just as we would. Saddam was convicted of 143 counts of murder...hardly 1.5 million.

    May 29, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • someone

      Still doesn't give them the right to attack countries who weren't involved (UK, India, countless others).

      May 29, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  13. @Cesar

    The Koran refers to a Muslim mman who joins forces with the invaders as an "renegade Muslim" who is to be dealt with even more harshly. Nothing sickens a true Muslim more than seeing one of his brothers wearing the uniform of a foreign military and still claiming to be a true Muslim. Those men that were hanged and dragged through the streets of Fallujah? Renegade Muslims being dealt harshly with by true Muslims.

    May 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Fear the True God

    All men are guilty. Some of us have a healthy fear of displeasing God, and are sorry when we do disobey his word. Other men are very guilty and are not sorry for disobeying God and so rightly figure that if there really were an all-powerful God, they would be afraid of him.

    May 29, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  15. david

    will a simple fire turn this building to dust just like a simple fire did in world trade center building 7? does larry silverstein still own the lease to the world trade center complex, and if he does will he put devices in the buildings so if he decides to "pull it" they will turn to dust in 10 seconds? if a fire hits the upper floors, will the lower 70 or so floors give way like they never existed?
    can all of the people reading this who, after 10 years, still thinks 19 muslims not listed on the flight manifests, some of which are still alive, armed with devastating boxcutters, say "baa baa baa" like the good little sheeple the government wants you to be so they can rob you of your money and have pedophiles at the tsa stick their hands all over your children to keep you safe. im also going to say this straight out. ted olson married a woman named lady booth. i believe that lady booth is barbara olson with some plastic surgery. do any of you know those two people and can you confirm what i believe?

    May 29, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • whodacares

      I'll let you know when I've finished completing your tin-foil hat. Until then enjoy the crack you've been smoking for the past 10 years.

      May 29, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
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