Looking at ground zero showed American spirit lives on

The cab dropped us off in lower Manhattan, and we pushed down the crowded sidewalk through the muggy July morning.

New York’s miserable heat wave was less than a week away, and we were receiving a sample of the swelter to come. As we drew closer to ground zero and the ant hill of construction associated with it at the Freedom Tower — adorned with cranes and already 50 stories high — the dark business suits of the financial district types were replaced by tourists wearing shorts and an army of construction workers in hard hats breaking for lunch. The fenced and covered construction site prevented us from glimpsing the activity inside the vast chasm where the World Trade Center towers once stood as symbols of American capitalism.

A tangle of emotions and motivations drew us to ground zero: unprocessed trauma, collective grief, a sense of disbelief, even simple curiosity. Interviews I conducted with Southern Nevada family members of victims never left my consciousness. After nearly a decade, Amelia still regularly talked about the terrible dream with all the people falling that she awakened from on that morning.

But mostly our Sept. 11, 2001, experience is filtered through the lens of television. My daughter was only 5 that awful morning, but 9/11 and its aftermath have never left our family’s conversation.

That day in July, accompanied by our friends Chelsea Brown and Noah Gollin, we reached the edge of the construction site and were disappointed to be unable to see anything more than the barrier and the advertisements for the handsome and haunting memorial being built on what for many Americans has become sacred ground.

Just then, we were approached by a uniformed Port Authority officer. Amelia would later admit she thought we were in trouble when the man with the badge and gun stopped us and asked our reason for being there. After a couple polite questions he said, “Please follow me.”

The officer led us into the entry of the construction site as workers by the dozen streamed out, headed for lunch. He escorted us past security and onto an aluminum platform he said was normally reserved for the families and the first responders. We moved to the edge and looked out into a deep pit of construction the size of a canyon. Steel beams seemed to be rising from beneath the surface of ground zero.

A place marked by so much death in the collective psyche wasn’t dead at all. There was an indefatigable spirit at work there. The American spirit.

“Look, Dad,” Amelia said. “It’s coming back to life.”

She was right. But I couldn’t help thinking of the Southern Nevadans directly associated with that fateful day.

There was Barbara Edwards, the popular and devoted Palo Verde High School teacher. She taught French and German, languages that helped her students learn more about the world. She was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77 when the hijacked commercial airliner crashed into the Pentagon.

There was UNLV grad and U.S. Army Lt. Col. Karen Wagner, who was killed while on duty at the Pentagon that morning.

There was Renee May, an American Airlines flight attendant, who called her parents in Las Vegas from Flight 77 to tell them it had been hijacked, asking them to notify the airline.

And there was Las Vegan Mary Jean O’Rafferty’s brother, Walter Matuza, a finance employee who worked at the World Trade Center’s north tower.

Nearly 3,000 people died that day, but I’ll never forget Las Vegan Don Cherry reminiscing about his wonderful son, Stephen, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee who died at the World Trade Center. Stephen Cherry was not only a loving son and devoted father, but like his dad he was a gifted musician, too.

Las Vegas emergency room physician Michael Brown lost his brother, Fire Department of New York Capt. Patrick “Paddy” Brown, in the collapse of the north tower. As always, Patrick had hurled himself into harm’s way. He and his men from Ladder 3 were on the 40th floor attending to burn victims when he refused orders to evacuate. They died doing their jobs.

Thinking of selfless Paddy Brown, family man Stephen Cherry and the rest was too much for me. Emotion fogged my eyes. The Port Authority officer’s reaction to the emotion was accepting, as if to say, “Don’t worry, pal. It happens every time.”

Tears flowed as I stared into the vastness of ground zero, stunned to silence by a simple truth: Even with this enormous hole in it, America’s amazing heart still beats.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.
He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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