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Into the Earth: A visit to the 9/11 Memorial

Douglas Imbrogno
The names of the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks are grouped by "meaningful adjacencies": companies, conferences and personal relationships.
Douglas Imbrogno
Upon completion later this year, the Freedom Tower (rising out of frame) will be the tallest building in America, at a symbolically chosen height of 1,776 feet.
Douglas Imbrogno
The massive fountains and reflecting pools of the 9/11 Memorial site rest in the footprints of the north and south World Trade Center towers that were destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001.
NEW YORK -- I'm peeved. We've hit yet another checkpoint in our attempt to view the current state of the World Trade Center 9/11 Memorial.It's a freezing afternoon beneath a New York City sky the color of dirty Styrofoam. Overhead, the two-thirds-built Freedom Tower soars like a massive obsidian spearhead aimed at the heavens, soaring toward its symbolic height of 1,776 feet.We're being asked a third time to produce ID, to again serve up our paper tickets for review and digital recording. And now, a burly security guard the size of a defensive lineman, has cornered my son's small backpack after its journey through an X-ray machine."What's that?" he barks, pointing to a pocket."Oh," says my son. "It's a souvenir."He'd preserved a white ceramic beer bottle with a dragon logo as a trophy from a meal at a too-expensive restaurant."Throw it in the trash," the guard commands.Son dutifully throws souvenir in trash.We finally make it through the labyrinthine security protocol and join a torrent of people streaming into and out of the site. "What's the point of all that?" I complain to the wife about the bottle.My tourist crankiness dissipates, though, as I think through the security gantlet.I suppose the bottle, in the guard's eyes, could have been thrown into the 9/11 Memorial fountains we're approaching, making a mess of them. (In fact, some Brooklyn junior high students were ejected from the site in June 2012 for throwing baseballs, soda bottles and other trash into the fountains.)More important, I suppose some addled al-Qaida or Western Civilization-hating sympathizer might consider it a supreme act of suicidal glory to add an exclamation point to the 9/11 site, blowing himself and a few dozen tourists to smithereens.Then, I encounter the fountains. And all the words die in the mouth.Into the Earth I think it's safe to say we owe the current fashion in tragedy memorial sculpture to Maya Lin and her silence-inducing, tear-wrenching Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Thousands of names punched into stone. Stark-sided, angular geometrics descending into the Earth. Simple lines grasped simply, yet etched upon the eye.Yet the sheer scale of the 9/11 Memorial fountains and reflecting pools dwarf that D.C. memorial, let alone the human scale of the visitors who come to the heart of New York City to see them. (The pictures I snapped may not do the fountains justice, so check out the short iPhone video atop this story at was a powerful design decision to choose such massive fountains and pools, sited upon the footprints of the now-gone north and south towers of the World Trade Center. The two fountains, aptly titled "Reflecting Absence," make up the nation's largest manmade waterfalls.Michael Arad's fountain design, tweaked and revised in consultation with landscape architecture firm Peter Walker and Partners, was picked from among more than 5,000 submissions from 63 nations. (The 13-member jury that chose the design included Lin.)The pools are surrounded by a bronze parapet featuring the names of the nearly 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the six people killed in a Feb. 26, 1993, attack on the World Trade Center.The waterfalls pour 26,000 gallons a minute down 30-foot-deep black granite walls into a pool. The water then gathers at the lip of a central square, pouring over and down into a further blackness, deeper into the earth. The water -- nearly a half-million gallons -- is then recirculated back through the fountains via powerful pumps.
You cannot see down into the black pit at the center of the memorial where the water drops a second time, which is both a bit frustrating and darkly poetic. Where did they go, the buildings and the many people in them that used to stand here?'Meaningful adjacencies'Taking a cue from Lin's memorial, but with a far different organizational principle, the names of the victims for this memorial are etched into granite slabs that rim the fountains.While the 58,261 names on the Vietnam Memorial are arranged by the chronological dates upon which people died, the names of the 9/11 victims are grouped differently. Michael Arad has been quoted as saying that the names are grouped in accord with "meaningful adjacencies."This scheme "allows us to place the names of those who died that day next to each other in a meaningful way, marking the names of family and friends together, as they had lived and died," said Arad. So, groupings of names may reflect where victims were, their affiliations (the companies they worked for or groups attending a conference together) and their personal relationships.At night, light not only illuminates the streaming fountains, but shines up through the voids created by each letter of a name, which must pack an additional punch.Running one's hands over the names is ultimately numbing. So many people who went to work one day and didn't come home that night.My wife finds the name of Huntington native Dr. Paul Ambrose, killed in American Airlines Flight 77, which terrorists commandeered and drove into the Pentagon.I'm stopped in my tracks by the Italian name of someone I don't know, but whose name etched through granite is doubly resonant: Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas and her unborn child.How the world changed on that September day in 2001. The complexities reverberate to this day: the winding up and down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their countless deaths; the endless growth of a sprawling national security apparatus; the unresolved incarcerations at Guantanamo Bay, where a hunger strike currently grows by the day.And it seems like tempting fate to throw up the Freedom Tower, which will rise taller than the World Trade Center towers themselves.Yet these are political reflections that come days after our visit to the memorial. Sitting near one of the trees growing anew on the World Trade Center site, I remark to my 23-year-old son: "You don't need a devil. Human evil is devil enough in this world."But those are mere words, pontification from a dad imagining what it would be like to have lost my spouse or child that day and aghast at the average folks who were indeed lost.It's odd to admit, but I entered the memorial site not knowing what to expect. I'd read nothing about the fountains in advance. So, I spent 20 minutes with the north tower fountain and its names, thinking that this fountain was the whole memorial.I wandered away.Then, I heard other splashing sounds. I walked over and realized what they were.Oh.Yes. The other tower.And more names.Want to go?You need a pass to visit the 9/11 Memorial. The easiest way to get one is at Reservations made online or by phone carry a $2 nonrefundable service fee. Same-day visits are also available on a first-come, first-served basis at the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site, 20 Vesey St., New York.Reach Douglas Imbrogno at or 304-348-3017.
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