A visit to Ground Zero as New York City tries to heal

Posted: Friday, September 12, 2003

NEW YORK CITY - I cannot remember the South Tower falling.

I remember standing in a small alley with cobbles instead of pavement and blank windows on either side, sweating in the sun and watching the World Trade Center burn. I remember a woman's voice on the radio saying, "Oh my God" over and over again, and another voice in the background, screaming.

I even remember the trail of black smoke as the very top of the tower fell in upon itself.

But I cannot remember the tower falling.


Thursday night, I exited the subway behind a man in a blue shirt. In one hand, he held a single red rose surrounded by baby's breath. Attached to it with a black binder clip was a note. I could only make out the top: "In Memory of Stephen Scott Dorf." And underneath, a quote from Plato.

I followed him along the street toward the World Trade Center site. Outside St. Paul's Cathedral, a line of people stood, waiting to be admitted. Some did crosswords, read newspapers. Some hushed children. Some just stared into the distance.

The man walked past them. He had headphones on and moved so quickly I kept losing him in the crowd.

All around us, people were flowing toward Ground Zero. Families walked together. Two firemen, in full uniform, stood silently on a street corner.

Others had stopped and taken a seat on corners and steps. They were all staring at the same point, the same brightly lit square of concrete and chain-link fence that had once been two beautiful buildings stretching up to touch the sky.

I didn't look there. Not yet. I watched the man in the blue shirt as he sped across the street, reached the edge of the World Trade Center site and stopped. His hand, holding the rose, dropped to his side. He pulled his headphones half-off, then stopped and put them on again.

Over our heads, the electric lights snapped on, casting the flowers and photos that had been taped to the fence into sharp display. Above the heads of the crowd, black placards emblazoned with the names of the Sept. 11 victims - heroes - became visible.

The man in blue stepped forward. He knew where he was going. He'd been here before. So had I, but only once. And I turned my head away, because every time I saw this place I wanted to remember, and doing that hurt.

I was lucky. I was not a victim of Sept. 11. I lost no loved ones. But there are parts of that day I will never escape and being in New York brought them all back. Seeing the devotion others have paid to the memories of their loved ones made me question my own desire to forget and made me wonder what I've paid for the hole in my memory where the fall of the South Tower should be.

Standing in front of the fence on Sept. 11, 2003, I wondered if the man in blue also wanted to remember, if he too had put his hands over his eyes and his fingers over his ears and willed himself to recall that day in excruciating detail. If he felt he owed it to the victims, to Stephen Scott Dorf, to one of the other 2,792 names, to never forget, to perfectly recall the terror and shock of the tragedy.

All around us, people paced up and down the fence. There was flute music in the air, wavery "Amazing Grace" and the "Star Spangled Banner." The man who was playing was older, with dark wrinkled skin and a bushy, white beard. He kept missing notes, skipping forward in the song. I wondered if he'd been playing all day.

The man in blue pushed through the crowd to the fence.

Across the street, I saw rows of people sitting silently on the steps of buildings, staring into the night sky. Kids laid their heads on mothers' laps. Couples held hands. I followed their gaze up, looking at the two thin beams of blue light bending over my head.

The man stood for a moment, staring through the chain link. Beside him, a woman pushed her face against the fence, fingers clenched on the metal, her whole body straining forward as if she could fall through.

The very first time I came to New York, I got off a bus in front of the World Trade Center and looked up. The building was so tall it curved over my head. It was so tall that even though it was raining, you could see the sun at the very top.

I had to be in New York, I thought, for something that magical to exist.

The man laid his rose down. He knelt over it for a moment, then stood, crossed himself, and turned to leave. At the last moment he paused and stepped back, reaching out a hand to clench one of the metal fence poles.

Above my head, the beams of light curved. I smelled flowers on the wind, and smiled at a woman who patted my shoulder as she passed.

The note the man left was simple. "The soul takes flight to the world that is invisible. There awakening, is assured of bliss and forever dwells in Paradise. - Plato. Rest in peace, Stephen."

I cannot remember the South Tower falling. But New York remembers. It remembers the disaster and it remembers those who were lost. And even as Sept. 11 becomes more of a memory and less of a wound, it continues to honor them.

Tonight, I was a part of that. And though I never knew Stephen Dorf, when I stood together with families and visitors and mourners near Ground Zero, I knew I would remember him too.

• Genevieve Gagne-Hawes is a former Empire reporter and intern who works in New York City.

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