Looking across the street from a viewing area inside the World Financial Center on a sun-drenched Saturday, it was impossible to comprehend the horror that engulfed lower Manhattan almost 10 years ago.
A yellow earthmover maneuvered around the construction area framed by towering cranes where a 105-story office tower is halfway built. A few hard-hatted workers walked near the not-yet-finished gray building with a “9-11 Memorial” sign draped on one side.
Just a couple of days before, President Barack Obama had silently placed a wreath at ground zero, where the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is supposed to open to the public in four months. It will be a decade since al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks shook New York, the Pentagon, Pennsylvania and the entire country, even much of the world.
On my first visit to the site since that infamous day, the surrounding area was almost as bustling as any other part of the city, with traffic clogging the streets and lunchtime groups filling a nearby plaza overlooking the Hudson River.
Tour buses now take visitors to a glass-enclosed walkway that offers a clear view of the progress at ground zero. It was easy to hear snippets of conversation in languages from around the world.
One tour guide showed a large photo of the burning Twin Towers as he explained that, when the two tallest buildings of the original World Trade Center collapsed, they destroyed five smaller ones.
Another guide was telling a group of women that his mother narrowly escaped being at the WTC when the towers crumbled in fire and smoke because her boss volunteered to open the office that day.
A sister, brother, mother and their friend from Hamilton, Ontario, told me that they often visit New York in the summer and have tried to track the progress of the reconstruction at ground zero the past few years.
“It’s a pretty somber place,” said Amy, who asked that her last name not be used because she’s a private person.
“We always want to pay our respects.”
Sacha, her brother, said very little was happening at the site in 2007, but by 2008, “you started seeing the framework.”
My daughter, Mackenzie, who’s completing her freshman year at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., about a two-hour train ride north of the city, said she was surprised that development wasn’t further along so many years after the attacks.
Somehow, it’s not surprising that after the long, laborious cleanup of the 16-acre site, feuding and finances delayed the new landmark One World Trade Center, still popularly called Freedom Tower.
But more important is the memorial, which will include reflecting pools with man-made waterfalls in the footprints where the north and south towers once stood. The pools will be outlined with bronze panels containing the names of 2,982 people who died during terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001 and at the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pa., on 9/11.
Ali Shahid, the cabbie who drove my daughter and me from midtown to ground zero, said that on 9/11 he was a cigarette salesman waiting at home for his boss so they could go to the Bronx. But his boss called to say there’d been an accident, maybe a small plane had hit the World Trade Center.
But the smoke was too much. Then a second plane hit. The World Trade Center, he said, “was like a lighthouse for you.” The aftermath was very confusing.
Later, when he started driving a cab, Shahid said, he avoided the area for a while because it was too sad: “I didn’t have the heart to come to this side.”
Denise Wirsig, a mother of three from Queens, said she often brings visitors to ground zero. This day, her group was bound for the Staten Island ferry and included her daughters, 15 and 11, and other girls too young to remember what had happened.
When she first started coming, Wirsig said, “I was very annoyed it was just empty. I’m happy to see something is happening.”
We talked not quite a week after Obama had announced that U.S. commandos killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden at his fortress in Pakistan.
“I was surprised that it brought me back to the moment, which I didn’t expect at all,” Wirsig said of the news about bin Laden. “It seemed like it was just yesterday all of a sudden.”
It’s essential to move on — but just as imperative that we never forget.
• Campbell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.