In the decade since 9/11, lower Manhattan’s most visible tribute to the thousands killed there has been a pair of ethereal light beams that cut through the night sky on the anniversary of the terror attacks each year. The glowing columns, echoes of the toppled Twin Towers, draw eyes upward, away from what has been derided as a massive “pit” filled with heavy construction equipment.
The unveiling of a tangible, permanent monument at the World Trade Center on the 10th anniversary will at last transform part of the site into a space of remembrance, capping a decade of painstaking planning and progress stunted by conflicting visions, financial disputes and controversy.
“There were periods of time when my wife and I thought it wouldn’t happen,” said Tom Acquaviva of Wayne, whose 29-year-old son, Paul, died in the north tower. “My son’s body was never found. That area, Ground Zero, is in essence his burial ground. So to me and my family, that’s sacred ground. It’s our cemetery.”
“I’m just happy there is finally a place to go,” he added.
Open to public Monday
On the 10th anniversary, family members will gather on the plaza, along with President Obama, former President George W. Bush and a handful of other officials, to read the names of victims and observe moments of silence. The memorial will be opened to the public the following day. Millions are expected to visit the 8-acre plaza each year, even as work continues on the rest of the more-than-$11 billion World Trade Center project.
On a recent tour, the memorial appeared nearly ready for the ceremony: The massive voids shaped in the footprints of the original towers held shallow pools of water. The protective blankets covering the nearly 3,000 victims’ names etched into bronze parapets had been removed; a worker was waxing the metal surface. And new plant life added vibrancy to the plaza’s stone floor: All 225 swamp white oak trees had been planted, and landscapers were touching up freshly laid stretches of lush Kentucky bluegrass and beds of ivy, all of which withstood the winds and storm surge of Hurricane Irene.
“Everything is coming together,” the memorial’s designer, architect Michael Arad, said. “This is going to start a new chapter in the life of the site.”
More than 350,000 people have already reserved free passes to the memorial through an online ticketing system, said Joe Daniels, president of the 9/11 Memorial Foundation. Public access will be limited to 1,500 visitors at a time.
“The demand we’ve seen to date has blown us away,” he said.
Visitors will see water cascading into two 1-acre pools that hold a combined 1 million gallons. The country’s largest man-made waterfalls, powered by enough electricity for 800 homes, are ringed by the memorial’s emotional focal point: a ribbon of victims’ names on temperature-controlled bronze panels. A free mobile-phone application will provide visitors with information about the lives of the victims and an audio-visual tour of the site.
The placement of the names will hold significance for many victims’ families, Arad said. The memorial foundation received about 1,200 requests from family members to place a loved one’s name next to another victim’s, a relative or a co-worker. One example: A woman asked that her father, a passenger on Flight 11, be placed next to her best friend, who was in the building the plane hit, Arad said.
“You have chains of connection and meaning that will be invisible to the naked eye, but if you’re a family member, you’ll know,” he said.
Although the parapets were exposed during a recent tour of the site, blue signs posted on fencing around the site asked that photos not be taken of the names to ensure that families are the first to see them on the 10-year anniversary. Family member Sally Regenhard, a vocal critic of the memorial and of plans to store victims’ unidentified remains in a medical examiner’s office built under the plaza, said the memorial is extravagant and not what many family members wanted.
“It’s just an egregious example of waste,” said Regenhard, whose firefighter son, Christian, died on 9/11. “I have real concerns about the cost of maintaining this going forward, and I think it’s going to be problematic.”
Planners have said the memorial will cost about $60 million annually to operate. The majority of the nearly $700 million in construction costs for the memorial and an underground museum will be covered by private donations, they have said. Regenhard said she would have preferred a “simple” tribute that displayed the image, age and other biographical information about each victim. She will attend the ceremony on Sunday, she said, but it is likely to be the last time she visits the site.
Just to the north of the plaza, the steel beams of One World Trade Center now rise to 80 floors – beyond the 1,000-foot mark that officials set as a goal for the 10-year anniversary. The rising crown of the building – called “the top of the house” by construction workers – is visible miles away. When completed in late 2013, it will be the country’s tallest building at 1,776 feet.
Laborer Frank Stephan of Wayne said he was proud to take part in its construction.
“We’re not going to see something like this in another 100 years, so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said while sitting on a stack of construction materials on the 74th floor, looking out over New York Harbor.
Others are critical of the extraordinarily complex project. Motorists, mostly from New Jersey, will finance much of the construction through steeply higher tolls to cross Port Authority bridges and tunnels, starting Sept. 18.
At a series of public hearings on the toll hike proposal last month, some questioned why the Port Authority, the bi-state agency that owns the World Trade Center site, is in the business of building office towers.
Agency officials have said they have a moral obligation to rebuild the site of the deadliest terror attacks on U.S. soil – and that the tolls and PATH fare hikes are needed, in part, to complete the project. Governor Christie has cited cost overruns and mismanagement of the project, but he signed off on the higher tolls and fares last month. There are also doubts about the financial viability of the new World Trade Center office buildings. One World Trade Center alone will add 3 million square feet of office space. Media giant Condé Nast signed a lease to occupy part of the building earlier this year.
Agency officials point out that the original towers were not initially profitable-it took almost three decades before they made money. And the Twin Towers, designed by Minoru Yamasaki and completed in 1970 and 1971, were at first called ugly, boxy, featureless.
“Just glass-and-metal filing cabinets,” architecture critic Lewis Mumford called them.
With time, they would become beloved icons marking the country’s financial epicenter. The memorial that takes their place will be surrounded for years by construction. Plans for the site include a total of four office towers, a vehicle security center, a transportation hub and an underground 9/11 museum.
Arad said he does not expect the construction surrounding the memorial to detract from its solemnity. The cascading water will soften the harsh sounds of the city – the hammering, the honking, the drilling – as visitors take in the massive voids and reflect on all that was lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
“What we’re doing is building a moment of silence,” he said.