At ground zero, a tragic past meets a hopeful future

I HAD NOT VISITED New York since Sept. 11, but business brought me here on the eve of the six-month observances of the terrorist attack and commemoration of those who perished in it.

Around ground zero, gone are the plumes of acrid smoke, and the ankle-deep dust, and the debris from the World Trade Center towers. But there are still barricades, and scores of burly policemen, stamping off the last chill of winter, keeping guard at bridges, intersections, and key buildings. They are watchful, but friendly and helpful, exuding the spirit that now bonds New Yorkers with their policemen and firemen in the wake of their shared tragedy.

One of the officers directs us to ground zero. "But have you got your tickets?" he asks. Now you need a ticket to pay your respects at the huge pit where the towers once stood. It's not a ticket requiring payment to some commercial enterprise capitalizing on the nation's grief, but simply a ticket that regulates the approach and passage of the hundreds upon hundreds who each day want to stand and meditate at the scene of the disaster that has changed our world. It is early afternoon when we get our tickets, but so many people are ahead of us that our time slot is not until evening.

A wooden ramp now hangs over the site. Groups, about 40 at a time, are permitted to climb up to it and pause for perhaps three minutes before the next group moves in behind them. The mood is somber, the voices are hushed, but loud enough for us to discern that they speak many different languages. This may be largely America's burden, but many other nationalities suffered loss, and they have come from many lands to share it.

Floodlights illuminate the work site. The night shift is busy. Huge machines dip and bob like giant dinosaurs, their jaws scrabbling away at the remaining debris. Around the perimeter, buildings that survived, their scarred and blackened facades bearing testimony to their wounds, stand sentinel.

But here is an intriguing phenomenon. Though it is now dark, the lights in these buildings are ablaze and there is the bustle inside them of renewed activity and normalcy. It is a symbolic juxtaposition of the tragic past with the hopeful future.

The railings of nearby St Paul's Episcopal chapel are covered with messages of remembrance: "The University of Arkansas loves you." "Rest your souls - Sharon from Brooklyn." "None of you are lost or missing. God knows exactly where you are." Love notes from Trinidad, Australia, Canada, Wales, the Netherlands. Shirts from other firefighters. Flags and sheets full of scrawled prayers. Wreaths and ribbons. Seven thousand paper cranes with messages of peace from the schoolchildren of Matsue, Japan. "Does it ever stop?" I ask one of the chapel's volunteers. "No," she says, "New York never sleeps."

In nearby Fulton Street and the seaport area, there is the bustle of ordinary life. New York throbs and pulsates. No, the victims of this inhuman terrorist attack will not be forgotten. But yes, Americans are regaining their equilibrium and will rebuild.

For a while, there will be a couple of temporary memorials on the World Trade Center site: a bronze sculpture removed from the plaza and two soaring pillars of light representing the towers themselves. But recovery and cleanup efforts are ahead of schedule and a development board is working on a master plan for what is to emerge there.

In a New York Times article this weekend, Lisa Beamer, the widow of Todd Beamer, who lost his life in one of the other doomed planes Sept.11, wrote: "The healing and rebuilding process doesn't mean replacing what once was. In rebuilding we evaluate what was good and what was bad, then use that knowledge to mold a better future." Pondering what the Sept. 11 tragedy means for individuals, she said it could "easily lead us to a place of bitterness, violence, or depression." Yet it can also be "a catalyst for greatness."

At a church service before visiting ground zero I heard a television personality, working on a documentary about the aftermath of Sept. 11, tell of her experience at PS 239, a school that before the crumbling of the towers had stood literally in their shadow.

Afterwards, the school was exposed to new light and sunshine. "How," the principal was asked, "were the children coping with the situation?" "I tell them," she said, "to look up to the light and remember your blessings."

It is a worthy message to take away from this scene of sacrifice and valor.

• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

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