Sunday, September 11, 2011

Across the street from the WTC

Across the street from the World Trade Center site is St. Paul's Chapel.

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The church dates from the American colonial era and is the oldest continuously used public building in NYC. It didn't sustain structural damage on 9/11/01; trees in the churchyard took the brunt of the falling debris as the twin towers collapsed.

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On his inauguration day in 1789, George Washington prayed there (NYC was the U.S. capital then) with members of Congress.

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Two hundred and twelve years later, St. Paul's Chapel became a base for workers involved in rescue, recovery and clean-up following the attacks on the World Trade Center. In between shifts they could come to the church for food, foot rubs, back massages, conversation, counseling, prayers, comfort, a shoulder to cry on, soothing music, a place to sleep. The church was packed with volunteers, helping out 24/7.

Messages of support also came in from around the U.S. and the world.

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If you visit the church these days you'll find 9/11 exhibits and memorials. They're often personal and very moving. The deceased are remembered (including those who died in the act of saving other people or trying to); the exhibits also recount the many acts of love, healing, assistance and selflessness that followed, along with the nightmarish work undertaken by the first responders, recovery and clean-up workers.

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I was in Manhattan on 9/11; thankfully many blocks away from Ground Zero. My first sight of the attacks was an enormous mass of smoke against an otherwise lovely blue sky. I have just fragments of memory from the rest of the day: hearing on an elevator that the second tower had collapsed, and spending most of the day going from one place to another looking at TV screens for updates. Also calling and IM'ing family and friends. Thinking back on it I remember how people didn't want to be alone, but were leaving apartments, offices, dorms to gather into groups and try to make sense of what was going on.

My first bus ride down there felt like an approach towards a large, open wound. Last time I was there in late December '09 the feeling wasn't as strong but it was still present.

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View of the WTC site from the churchyard of St. Paul's Chapel, December '09.


No matter how extensive the rebuilding and restoration, the place will always feel raw.

I've had many discussions with people about the attacks, their evil and their global and political ramifications. I was a teenager at the time. The attacks, and the discourse surrounding them, markedly shaped my thoughts about the world and how I evaluated other people's worldview.

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WTC site, August '08.


What I've kept returning to are memories of how people rose to the occasion in the aftermath, in large and small ways. Thinking about this doesn't solve the bigger problems, it doesn't erase the horror, but it's an antidote to unhealthy pessimism and a reminder of how people can continue to be decent, brave, and unselfish even in an inferno.

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WTC site, December '09.


The salvation of man is through love and in love. - Viktor Frankl

4 comments:

Relyn said...

I didn't know about St. Paul's and the role the church played. Thank you for sharing these stories. I was also very interested to hear your personal story. I was 30 minutes into my 6th day of my first year of teaching. All I wanted to do was watch the news, but I had a class full of students to shield and to teach. What a day.

Lucy said...

For a variety of reasons, I hope none of them being callousness, I've tended to avoid too much 9/11 10th anniversary coverage in the media, even in blogs, but I appreciate this piece very much, and found the images and history of the church and how it was spared in part by its trees very interesting and moving.

And aren't you young! I hadn't realised; your writing and the impression I have of your life belies your years...

(I hope this doesn't sound patronising.)

naida said...

This is a nice post HKatz. I think ground zero will always feel raw. Those images will be ingrained in our minds forever. I visited a few years after 9/11 and it was just incredibly sad to see the towers gone.
Thank you for sharing your story here also.

HKatz said...

All I wanted to do was watch the news, but I had a class full of students to shield and to teach.
Shield and teach - that's beautiful. And the kids couldn't have imagined what was going on then.

For a variety of reasons, I hope none of them being callousness, I've tended to avoid too much 9/11 10th anniversary coverage in the media
So did I! It's not callousness so much as just wanting to remember things quietly or not wanting to be inundated. Everyone responds to it differently.

(I hope this doesn't sound patronising.)
Thanks for the kind words, and no I don't see them as patronizing; it's just your honest reaction.

I visited a few years after 9/11 and it was just incredibly sad to see the towers gone.
I know; it's not something you get used to.