World Trade Center memorial

I felt the air get colder, and a sudden hush went over the constant sound traffic in New York City as I made my way down a third straight street in search of it. The wind seemed to blow straight down and cut through my leather jacket to pierce my bones. I knew that when I found it, I would know.

I was here on my Christmas vacation. Vacation, to many college students and professors, is a time to relax, to have some fun and to visit with those we care about.

I already had my fun at home, doing typical vacations things, and now I felt that it was important to see, to remember, and above all, to pay my respects, since I had the opportunity.

If it hadn’t been for my uncontrollable shivering and the feeling that my death was minutes away, I might not have asked the girl at the Chinese doll store where we stopped for directions, but I did. Before I could say, “How do we get to Ground Zero from here?” I wanted to apologize.

I imagined how many times people have come into this store just to ask that same question. She answered me and pointed the way. Her facial expressions were exactly what I had expected.

There was a line in front of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and we continued to walk, looking for its end. The beginning of the line wrapped around at least 20 blocks. We were shocked.

My girlfriend looked at me and said, “Do you really want to do this?”

I picked my head up out of my jacket and shivered out the words “You’re damn right I do. Thousands of people are dead, and it’s not because they wanted to be. We can get warm again, but they can’t come back ever.”

As the line moved from block to block and across streets, we made friends, found out where they were from, what they did for work. One small girl talked to me about her teddy bear.

A full hour passed. My girlfriend and I shared a wool snow-hat that she remembered to bring. Two hours passed. My girlfriend bought a pair of mittens. A half an hour later, we began to see signs of a memorial.

There were 12 tiny painted hands on a sheet with the words “We miss you Mrs. Kelley! Love, Your Kindergarten Class”.

Favorite team hats with messages attached hung on a fence outside of a church.

They said, “I miss you Chris.” And “Rest in peace, Tim. You were a good man with a good family.”

There were signs all over that said, “God doesn’t even know why” and “Why did this happen?”

There were pictures of daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, and parents; thousands of candles and flowers.

Nobody in the line was speaking now. As we read parts of the memorials, our silence of caused us to become their family.

I fought back tears as I read a rose-colored note card on a picture. “Nicky, please hurry back home. We all miss your beautiful smile. Sincerely, your loving Mother.”

After signing the sheet with our thoughts, we crossed slowly to the corner of another street. I was having second thoughts. I might completely lose it and become emotional in front of all these people.

Around the corner was a small street. On the left hand side, there were old tombstones in a small cemetery.

Up ahead, about 20 people were let onto a ramp –“the observational deck.” Local police officials stressed that groups had only three minutes of viewing time.

My girlfriend and I were the first of our group on the platform. My heart climbed into my throat. I swallowed a couple of times, trying to push back down my breakfast and the hot cocoa.

I took two steps up the ramp and got hit with an odd but familiar smell: airplane fuel.

The sight was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was as if a comet had fallen right down on top of the World Trade Center towers, creating this crater. The windows of the buildings around the ruins were broken or non-existent. Some walls were damaged. A brown building that stood on the north end was stained black from fire, ashes, and soot. The building opposite looked just as lifeless, only it had a 100 foot long American flag hanging down its side.

I was completely dumbfounded for a day or two, as I reflected on what I had seen and felt from that deck.

I still think about that cold, frigid day. The things that I saw and felt still resonate in my mind today, almost 9 months since that winter afternoon.

However, of all the things I felt after leaving the observation deck, in large part I felt changed.

It wasn’t like a typical lecture from my father, where he’d sit next to me on my bed and try to help me realize things about life and the working world.

It was a kick to the chest and a time where I learned one thing by seeing Ground Zero: I don’t want to see people as strangers anymore.