By Ron Leir
Virtually every Thursday, Kearny’s Marty Nystrom takes the No. 40 bus and PATH train to Lower Manhattan to what used to be known as Ground Zero but what is now called the National September 11th Memorial.
There, Nystrom escorts visitors on 90-minute walking tours of the eight-acre memorial plaza which takes up about half the space where the World Trade Center’s North and South Towers stood until a terrorist attack took them down in 2001.
Nystrom is one of the volunteer guides for the 9/11 Tribute Center, 120 Liberty St., created by the September 11th Families Association.
Its mission, according to its website, is to offer visitors “a place where (they) can connect with people from the September 11th community. Through walking tours, exhibits and programs, the 9/11 Tribute Center offers ‘Person to Person History,’ linking visitors who want to understand and appreciate these historic events with those who experienced them.”
Nystrom, who’s been doing tours since March 2012, qualified for the job by virtue of having been among the myriads of first responders who served at Ground Zero. At the time he was chief of the Maplewood First Aid Squad. Other categories of volunteers and victims’ family members are also eligible to serve.
“There are approximately 400 of us, so, conceivably, you could take this tour 200 times, and not get the same (guide’s) story twice.” Nystrom said.
Guides-in-training attend orientation classes, held on weekends, and receive thick binders containing fact sheets on the World Trade Center’s history, beginning with its construction in the 1960s to revitalize Lower Manhattan, and continuing to the present day.
“Our mission,” Nystrom said, “is to remind people, ‘Let’s not forget what happened here,’ and it’s also a daily tribute to the people who lost their lives here.”
The Observer accompanied Nystrom on a recent tour at the WTC memorial pavilion. In our group were individuals from England, Italy, Belgium and Germany.
Factoid: More than 300 people from 83 countries outside the U.S. were among the 2,749 victims who perished at the WTC on 9/11.
Before we proceed, Nystrom asks if anyone is a law enforcement agent carrying a service weapon.
“Sometimes, I have to ask police officers to check their firearms (at the Tribute Center) before going onto the site,” he notes.
At Liberty and Greenwich streets on the side wall of the New York fire station housing Ladder 10/Engine 10, Nystrom points out a 54-foot-long, six-foot-high bas-relief memorial dedicated to the 343 firefighters who died at the WTC site.
Factoid: The sculpture project was underwritten by the New York law firm of Holland & Knight in memory of a partner in the firm, Glenn J. Winuk, a Jericho, N.Y., Fire Commissioner and volunteer firefighter, who went into the South Tower to rescue people but never emerged. Winuk had previously volunteered during the 1993 WTC bombing.
One block further east on Greenwich near Cedar Street, we pass O’Hara’s Pub, a favorite stopping place for cops, firefighters and construction workers. With the owner’s ready cooperation, it became a makeshift triage center for those injured in the aftermath of the attacks, Nystrom tells us.
Now we are on the 9/11 site, in the shadow of the new One World Trade Center (formerly known as the Freedom Tower) slated to open in 2014, and Nystrom recalls the original Twin Towers’ enormity of scale when they were dedicated in 1973.
“Twenty-five-thousand people worked in each tower and each building was visited daily 100,000 times,” Nystrom says. “The two towers were occupied by 430 companies from around the world.”
Throw in all the retail consumer space – 130 shops which took up two levels below each tower – and you come up with “the third largest mall in the U.S at the time in 2001.”
As we walk around the 9/11 Memorial Plaza, designed by architect Michael Arad, we get an appreciation of his concept, “Reflecting Absence,” the centerpiece being two oneacre granite recessed pools of waterfalls flowing down the sides, with names of all the people who died on 9/11 inscribed on bronze plates along the outside edges of the pools’ parapet walls.
Each of the pools sits in the footprints of the WTC’s North and South Towers.
On one level, Arad’s design reflects tears streaming into the void. On another, as the water collects at the top of the 200-foot parapet walls it symbolizes the victims as a collective, together; as the water cascades down the walls, it falls as individual rivulets, symbolizing the diversity of the victims.
Factoid: When the sunlight hits the names during certain times of the day, like a sundial, the names reflect off the water before the water tumbles down the walls. The water is temperature-controlled – in summer, warm water is pumped through the system; in winter, warm water circulates – so that the visitor placing a hand on a victim’s name will derive some sense of physical comfort.
Victims’ names are grouped according to what the Tribute Center characterizes as “meaningful adjacencies”. For example, WTC workers grouped together by association, by common employer, or by requests from families.
Opposite the south pool is a Callery pear tree, known as the “Survivor Tree.” Dug out of the rubble from the WTC site near Church Street, the 8-foot tree – planted during the ‘70s – was badly burned and had one remaining living branch. It was relocated to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx where it withstood a storm in March 2010 and was then returned to the WTC site in December 2010 where it weathered Hurricane Irene last year.
At the plaza’s four perimeter points there are planted 218 white swamp oak trees which have been found to be indigenous to Shanksville, Pa., and Washington, D.C, where the other 9/11 tragedies occurred.
“They will grow to 60 feet and put a nice canopy over here,” Nystrom says. “They’re trying to get to a total of 440 trees to match the number of first responders (New York City firefighters and police, Port Authority Police and EMS staff) killed on 9/11.”
Factoid: Under each of these trees is a computer chip designed to automatically transmit an alert to a laptop being monitored by a staffer in a nearby office that something is amiss and that the tree needs attention, such as lack of water, termites or some type of disease.
Now we look up at the eight-sided building formerly called the Freedom Tower – since renamed One World Trade Center – which, at 104 floors, will be six fewer than its predecessor but still attain the same roof height of 1,368 feet.
Nystrom reminds us that on Feb. 26, 1993, two levels below the lobby of Tower 1, “Al Qaeda took its first swipe at America,” setting off a bomb that killed six people, including a pregnant secretary, and created a 70-foot deep crater.
As our group takes a break, Nystrom shares his experience at Ground Zero as a volunteer first aid worker helping with rescue and recovery efforts on the early evening of 9/11. Assigned to work at the “northeast corner of the pile” for more than 30 hours spread over Sept. 11 and 12, he recalls how “everything had to be hand-picked; everything was like pixie sticks. We were not finding anything but carnage everywhere. To this day … I can still see it.”
Then, after 9 p.m., Nystrom said, the silence was broken by the sudden sound of chirping from firefighter emergency locator beacons coming from under tons of steel and debris from the stricken towers.
“That was a tough pill to swallow, knowing that you just can’t get to (the firefighters).”
Nystrom tells us why he’s pursuing this weekly task.
“I want to educate the kids because we can’t have this (type of catastrophe) anymore. We can’t have this stand.”
Factoid: It took some 10 years to build each of the Twin Towers. But the North Tower collapsed in just 9.2 seconds and the South Tower in 7.3 seconds. The fires ignited by the planes’ impact burned 100 days at temperatures exceeding 1,300 degrees.
Between the north and south footprint stands the 110,000 square foot WTC Memorial Museum, still in preparation. Some exhibits have been moved into the building and are visible through the odd-shaped structure’s transparent frontage.
There are two of the original 72 “tridents” – two-story tall anchors that held together the structural steel on the outside of the towers – and the “Survivors’ Staircase” – described by Wikipedia as two outdoor flights of stairs and an elevator connecting Vesey Street to the WTC plaza – which served as an escape route for some people exiting the North Tower.
Factoid: A group of New York firefighters, in rotating pairs, carried a disabled woman in a wheelchair down from the 60th floor of the North Tower and used the “Survivors’ Staircase” to emerge safely.
On Sept. 7, at 1:45 p.m., Kearny High School will hold its annual 9/11 tribute to all victims, including seven Kearny residents, at the stadium, with the raising of two new American flags and a third flag commemorating the 9/11 victims, all donated by the September 11th Families Association.