September 11, 2001 was 18 years ago, but the day remains singed into my heart as if it was yesterday.
As a Staten Island Register reporter at the time, I was at the site on May 30, 2002 covering the ceremony bringing the World Trade recovery to an official end after almost nine months and over three million hours searching for remains and removing close to two million tons of the debris from the catastrophe.
“But the sifting for body parts will continue at a landfill on Staten Island where the removed debris was taken, and the identification process will go on for months. Those remains that cannot be identified will be retained, in case new technology makes identification possible in the future. So far 1,102 victims have been identified and nearly 20,000 body parts have been recovered. The New York police say 105 people are still classified as missing,” Terence Neilan wrote in reporting the event for the New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/30/nyregion/ceremony-without-words-ends-recovery-effort-at-twin-towers.html
Symbolism spoke this day, far better than words.
The ceremony began at 10:29 a.m., marking the fall of the last piece of steel after the collapse of the second tower at 10:28 a.m. on September 11.
Standing on the press ramp overlooking the site, I found that, when it began with Firefighter James Sarokac ringing the FDNY bell in 5–5–5–5 code, the traditional signal for a fallen firefighter, I didn’t need to jockey with the rest of the press to get the best vantage point. Just being present at the site wrote the story in my heart.
The procession centered on a stretcher with an American flag folded on top, symbolizing all those not recovered who perished on September 11. It was placed in a waiting ambulance; followed by a truck that was draped in black cloth that carried the last load of steel (better known as the “Stars and Stripes beam”) covered with an American flag.
Firefighter Julian Ponteveccio and Police Officer Edward Harrigan played Taps, followed by an NYPD helicopter flyover. After the Pipe and Drum Unit played “America the Beautiful,” the procession continued north along West Street to Canal Street.
A combined FDNY/NYPD/PAPD Ceremonial Unit formed a line across the top of the ramp, officially marking the end of the recovery effort at the World Trade Center site; although the recovery process continues as the Fresh Kills Landfill with remains identification still going on at the office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
When the ceremony was over, the ring of cell phones and buzz of conversations of many of the crowd started, a concrete sign of moving on. Yet, as the rest of the press left, I found myself cemented to the spot, quietly looking out at the place that claimed so many lives, getting the feeling that I was looking at a new form of cemetery. I told myself it was time to leave, but my heart and soul kept me rooted to the spot.
That’s when I noticed the man with the hard hat standing alone; and some firefighters and police personnel who had replaced the members of the press who had left. Not one of us spoke, but there was an unspoken mutual acknowledgment that leaving was difficult.
As I looked out I felt not just the pain of September 11, but the pain of every day since then, and of the days to come. Eighteen years later I still know that pain.
Yet when I looked from the dusty concrete walls that looked aged, sad and war-torn on a floor of wet dirt with mud traces throughout to notice three white birds flying across the pit, I became aware of the frame of existing skyscrapers around the site that reached up to a sunny blue sky. It was then that I fully sensed the spiritual presence at the site, so many touching me and calling me to remember, but also so gently releasing me to go on.
The inner peace of the human spirit is there to encourage, no matter what happens in the physical world, as all these people, now at peace, live on in our hearts always to be remembered.
Recapturing the immediate deluge of kindness and support we had for each other, once again becoming a country united, is the best tribute to those we lost that day. If we are to learn anything from September 11, we must never forget the fragility and preciousness of each and every life.