At ground zero, uncertainty over how to pay respects

Visitors at a new observation deck uneasily balance reverence with clicking cameras.

Leaning against a police barricade within eyeshot of ground zero, Carrie Newton can tune out a traffic officer yelling at pedestrians in the street, but she can't ignore all the cameras around her.

"I would never take pictures here," says the lawyer from Chicago. "It's a grave site. [Taking photos] cheapens it."

A few feet away, Greg Simington videotapes a crane arm raising shards of metal. But he does this after closing his teary eyes and praying, "God raise the souls that are still lingering around here." Disrespect, as he and his wife, Vindia, see it, comes not from cameras but from souvenir stands.

"To me, this is sacred ground right now," says Vindia, who came with Greg from Chicago just to bear witness at ground zero. Vending NYPD hats and patriotic buttons "seems so much like profiting off misery."

Ever since the World Trade Center collapsed Sept. 11 and the search for bodies began, ground zero has commanded the reverence of a shrine at the end of a pilgrimage. But with the opening of an observation platform Dec. 30, some visitors worry that the site could become one more tourist attraction, albeit a unique one.

That concern has habitually casual tourists asking atypically self-conscious questions about which behaviors honor a sacred burial ground and which ones might desecrate it. As the search for answers grows, so also do the debates - and the awkward moments of uncertainty.

Feeling disoriented at ground zero is par for the course, even for New Yorkers, who constantly remark on all the sunlight. In the past, this patch of lower Manhattan was all shadows from the world's tallest skyscrapers. Now, the thousands who shiver in line for as many as three hours en route to the observation deck find themselves squinting in a blinding reminder of all that was and is no more.

On another level, the cavernous void seems a metaphor for the daunting task of paying proper respects without any headstones or name lists to venerate. Early visitors left enduring memorabilia, from T-shirts on a church gate to wreaths and flags on a chain-link fence. Today's pilgrims grasp for ways to contribute without doing harm, but in their own eyes, certain attempts seem to come up short.

"I was praying, but it seemed so inadequate," says Vindia Simington.

John Booker has been following advice to live as usual after Sept. 11, but for him that means selling souvenirs at sidewalk tables. Even though he's sold for years near what is now ground zero and none of his stock refers to ground zero per se, he now sells reluctantly.

"I was just thinking about 15 minutes ago, 'This really sad thing happened, and we're out here selling,' " he says. "Maybe there should be a moratorium on vending around here, at least for a week or two. It seems that would be the righteous thing to do."

So why does he keep selling? "We have to feed our families," says Mr. Booker, a father of three in Harlem and an acquaintance of vendors who died on Sept. 11. "Pretty soon, it's going to be too cold to sell anything outside, so we have to do it while we can."

Sellers aren't the only ones feeling repentant. Ms. Newton laughs at a remark unrelated to Sept. 11, but quickly adds, "I feel bad standing here giggling." About 30 onlookers turn away at 2 p.m. and bow their heads for mass at St. Peter's Church, which abuts the site.

Yet some who felt the horror firsthand are finding the public's presence, imperfect as it might be, to be redemptive. Alfred Smith was too traumatized to leave the house for two weeks in September, but Monday he was in the crowd, telling his story to anyone who would listen.

"I was in there, trapped in an elevator on the 50th floor, when it all happened," Smith said to no one in particular.

Crowds, cameras, vendors: It's all great to see, according to Karen Sofield of Long Beach, N.Y. "Why shouldn't this little guy make a profit?" she says. "He's got to make a living, too." And as long as everyone who wants to see has free access - and the observation platform is free - she'll be satisfied that ground zero's sacredness is being honored.

"It's great to see so many people here," says Thomas Sofield, Karen's husband. "The worst thing would be if no one cared."

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