No longer burdened with the name ‘Freedom Tower,’ 1 World Trade Center is steadily rising.
By Jason Fields
Last week, I was allowed into the enormous construction site at the World Trade Center. Before I describe what I saw, bear with me as I explain my own experiences of that day, and the time shortly after.
I’ve spent my life in New York. Born at Mt. Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side, growing up in the same neighborhood, where many people’s parents worked on Wall Street.
I didn’t experience tragedy on Sept. 11. I don’t want to compare what happened to me to the horrors of what happened to so many others. My experience was strange, not traumatic, and if it’s worth sharing, it’s for that reason.
I was trying to sleep on a red-eye flight back home from Seattle where I’d been visiting one of my oldest friends. I was coming home to a marriage that was breaking and would soon be broken.
It was a little before 9 a.m. when the pilot’s voice came on in the cabin, waking me from a half doze.
“Due to the situation in New York, this flight is being diverted to Buffalo,” he said.
He sounded calm like pilots always do, even as they’re plunging to the ground. But, I flipped on the television screen in the back of the seat in front of me. Jet Blue’s big claim to fame at the time was that everyone got their own connection to satellite TV. The only news channel I could find was CNBC, which does business news. Except that day.
They showed multiple views of the smoking north tower, and were speculating on what happened. They didn’t know anything — nobody did — but there were reports that a plane had struck the building. Clearly a terrible, terrible accident.
Then as I watched — as millions of people in the city and around the world watched — the south tower was struck by a plane.
The situation was now clear enough. New York was under attack.
The plane landed in Buffalo. Not knowing where to go, I got a cab to take me to The Associated Press bureau in town. I was working for the AP then.
There I saw the towers collapse, unable to move, unable to think.
I did what everyone else did, trying to get in touch with my loved ones. My wife and child got in the car, grabbed our son’s best friend and his mother and fled the city. My family lived in Riverdale and was able to get out quickly, and without facing traffic. They stayed overnight at my family’s cabin 50 miles north of the city.
I found out I couldn’t do anything from where I was other than share a little fellowship with the people in the bureau, though I was able to make sure that my friends and co-workers in Rockefeller Center were safe.
The next day, I took a train into Yonkers and was picked up there, by a wife who suddenly loved me again, as I loved her, all bitterness lost in the fear and the horror of the days.
It didn’t last, but it felt good then.
The AP had rented space in an unfinished office building across the street from Ground Zero, where reporters and photographers were stationed 24-hours a day, watching the search and rescue effort evolve. Maybe a week after it happened, I went downtown. I had to see what I could for myself, like so many others, except I got a better view than most. A “perk” of the job.
I tried joking with the photographer there. That’s what news people do, like cops, though often for less reason. He was game, but everything we said fell flat. An hour later, I took the elevator down and began to wander.
A few steps and I was faced with people hawking postcards with pictures of the towers. Others selling flag pins were close by. The anger built and built, but I didn’t do anything more than make a nasty comment to one of the carrion feeders.
I went back to the office and wrote in a fury, describing what I’d seen.
It wasn’t published.
The years have passed and the stories of true pain have come into, and to a certain degree, gone from the public consciousness.
The site itself remained a yawning grave, filled with temporary fixes to transportation problems and little else that could be seen. The tourists swarmed to the fences to see what they could — not much. Some New Yorkers made their own pilgrimages to visit loved ones or memories.
Big plans came and went, but for some reason we were stuck with the “Freedom Tower,” a name no New Yorker could have ever dreamed of. The city is a place filled with patriotism and pride, but there’s no need here for false sentiment or hollow boldness. We know what happened, and building high is a fitting act of defiance, but “Freedom Tower” is George W. Bush, a shallow man trying to grow into a suit made for larger men.
Two weeks ago, a young man working for the Port Authority called the offices of a small newspaper in the Bronx and found the editor. He offered me a chance to see what was finally happening beyond the fence.
For some reason I felt honored. I knew it was all about getting some good PR into print, but it was an opportunity I wanted. I would see what few others would.
The man who greeted me when we met outside the fence was young, wore a hardhat and a vest. He handed me a similar getup and a badge to hang around my neck. We walked in, and I had no idea how to feel. I still don’t.
What we talked about on our walk around the site was off the record, and he wasn’t even authorized to have his name in the paper, but there was no doubt about his pride in being involved in the reconstruction.
We saw many serious, unshaven men in rough clothes, making me feel effete and inferior in some way. All of them worked with purpose, and there wasn’t much joking, even in the lunch line.
There were union stickers on everything; the temporary elevators, all kinds of equipment and especially on the hardhats. There was pride and a kind of ferocity.
And there was progress. One World Trade Center, formerly the “Freedom Tower,” is looming above ground, steel and concrete. It’s not very tall yet, but I could see it grow as I stood there.
What will be a transit hub is a maze of metal now, with earthmovers digging, despite being easily 50 feet below the level of the ground.
The memorial pools are being constructed, the walls being clad in granite.
In short, the PR effort worked. I’m writing about what I saw, and what I saw was progress. There’s a good chance that those of us alive today will live to see this beloved part of our city rise up toward the skies again.