Special Reports

Pilgrims come to grieve, mourn and remember

They come to ground zero to pay their respects, though many admit they are just curious or want a souvenir snapshot.

When they arrive at the spot where the World Trade Center's twin towers once stood, they find a gray 16 acres that look and sound more like a construction site than a memorial to victims of terrorism.

All rubble, wreckage and remains are gone, and a solemn viewing platform has been dismantled. Today, crowds peer through a chain-link fence into a pit six stories deep that once was an underground garage, mall and subway terminal.

Still, most who visit the site of New York's World Trade Center can't help being moved.

"It creates a heavy heart," said Joan Blagg, a visitor from Westfield in nearby New Jersey. "It's not a cemetery, it's not a battlefield. But I'll never be able to come to this place and not think about what happened."

Blagg visited ground zero last week, repeating a pilgrimage she has made several times since Sept. 11. The open pit makes her sad and sympathetic for the families of those who died when the towers crumbled, she said.

But her first visit last October provoked an angry reaction.

"In October, I didn't cry. I was mad," Blagg said. "Seeing the buildings half tipped over, it was senseless to me."

Anger that had cooled in the months since the terrorist attacks also reignited in Ron Romano, a tourist from Boulder, Colo. Romano saw the World Trade Center site for the first time during a visit last week.

"A year later, it's like, 'We don't have to do anything about Afghanistan, we don't have to do anything about Iraq,'" he said. "You come down here, and it's like, 'Yes, we do.'

"And you walk around that church once or twice, that will change your mind," he said.

The church is St. Paul's Chapel, across Church Street from where the twin towers stood. St. Paul's served as a respite center for exhausted New York firefighters and others involved in the recovery effort, and the tall iron fence that surrounds the chapel courtyard has become a memorial wall.

Today, the fence stands sheathed in T-shirts, flags, hats, flowers, stuffed animals and paper cranes. Large banners littered with out-of-state autographs and tinted by New York soot memorialize the victims, while smaller sheets bear the heartfelt verse of amateur poets.

Most hats and T-shirts bear the names or logos of police and fire departments, but not all.

One particularly clean shirt heralds the Brett Family Singers ("Branson's Must-See Morning Show") and includes handwritten sentiments from the Bretts. Nearby hangs a shirt promoting Eddie's Auto Body of Riverside, Calif.

Eddie penned a line from the 25th Psalm: "They will be put to shame who are treacherous without excuse."

A teal Seattle Mariners cap hangs on the church's north fence, not far from a dark gray North Kitsap Fire & Rescue shirt.

People are often respectful and reserved around the fence and ground zero, but neither site has a particularly solemn air during a typical New York workday.

The sidewalk around St. Paul's fence is crowded with vendors selling ground zero hats, New York T-shirts, twin towers photos or books on Sept. 11 and its aftermath.

Most nearby buildings have been repaired, but not all. Steel I-beams and white insulation poke out of open wounds in the AT&T building. The heavily damaged Banker's Trust tower remains sheathed in protective black fabric.

At ground zero itself, construction workers swear loudly as they walk beneath "We will never forget" banners or nail together a viewing platform near a memorial cross made from salvaged I-beams. Office workers in dark suits swerve around slow-moving tourists angling for photographs or views.

Manhattan management consultant Murlidhar Tulshyan said the World Trade Center site used to make him sad or angry.

"But I see this every day now," Tulshyan said. "The site doesn't do that to me anymore." Like many New Yorkers, he is more concerned about what memorial or replacement office towers might be built on the land.

But Brad Mason, another Manhattan worker, said he still feels he lost something "both physically and emotionally" on Sept. 11.

"It's not the same Lower Manhattan we knew," Mason said. The World Trade Center's twin towers were landmarks that provided a southern compass point and helped commuters gauge distance or direction.

Many say New York's mood has changed - although it takes some Big Apple perspective to notice a somber attitude in what most outsiders see as a bustling metropolis.

"People are still very sensitive about it. And they're very polite," said Janice Gato, who grew up on Long Island but has lived in Maple Valley for seven years. "It's just different. Not what I remember of New York. Things have definitely changed."

In New York to attend a wedding, Gato detoured to Lower Manhattan to see ground zero. The sight upset her.

Unsure when she might be back to New York, Gato also planned to visit the Statue of Liberty. She later learned that the monument, which closed after Sept. 11, remains off-limits to the public.

"It's like I want to go before that's gone," Gato said. "Really. Everybody takes everything for granted.

"It's never going to be the same."

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