Drawn to Ground Zero

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Three weeks after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Charlie Kent's friend, Jeff Stephens, phoned to ask if he had plans for the weekend. Neither of them had any vacation time, flying was still a scary idea and neither of them had a trustworthy car, but a few days later they rented one and drove 15 straight hours to Ground Zero.

A New York City artist who helped create a performance collage titled "even the birds were on fire" walks into the audience and burns his own hair to convey a sense of the noxious smell that lingered over New York for months after Sept. 11, but the sounds at Ground Zero were more telling to Kent.

"The demolition machinery made a constant beat," he recalled. "Jeff said it was like a pulse."

Stephens wanted to hear and see this moment in history for himself.

"You can watch something on television," he said, "but I think we personally experienced the feeling of New York City at that time."

Others from the region have been drawn to Ground Zero since Sept. 11. The reasons differ, but all have difficulty characterizing their feelings there. All felt they were standing on sacred ground.

On a mission

Going to Ground Zero was literally a mission for Evelyn Gass, who lives near Dutchtown, Mo. She was there last New Year's Eve as part of a Missouri Baptist Convention Disaster Team. She is one of four members of Delta Baptist Church who volunteered to go to New York City, including the church's pastor, the Rev. Eric Hodge.

Gass is a widow who doesn't like big cities but went to New York City anyway. "They were requesting volunteers, and I couldn't think of any excuse why I couldn't go," she said. "I felt like I was helping in a way."

They spent a week cooking in eight-hour shifts for the workers who were still recovering bodies at the site. Four thousand meals a day were served in a tent the size of the bubble that houses the Central High School swimming pool.

Sometimes the recovery workers talked to the volunteers about their progress, and Gass listened. Other times the workers didn't want to talk.

"I could tell when they were disturbed," Gass said. "When there were bodies being found they rushed in and went right back out."

She went to the actual Ground Zero only once, during a memorial service delivered by a Catholic priest.

But being at Ground Zero will be with her forever, Gass says. "I talked with different ones that had lost friends and family. Those are things I'll never forget."

Grew up in NYC

Dr. Mitchell Gerber grew up in a high-rise apartment building a block from the World Trade Center. His parents still live in Brooklyn. To someone from New York City, the skyline without the World Trade Center towers is almost unimaginable, the Southeast Missouri State University political science professor says.

"It's supposed to be there. The only analogy I can think of is Paris without the Eiffel Tower."

For six years, Gerber's father worked for the U.S. Customs Bureau in one of the buildings connected to the twin towers. After retiring in 1981, he worked for a private company in Tower No. 2 for a couple of years. Gerber often had lunch with his father there.

"That made that a powerful personal connection," Gerber said.

On a family trip two years ago, Gerber took a photograph of his son, Yale, with the World Trade Center in the background. Last July at Ground Zero, Gerber photographed his 7-year-old son with a Port Authority policeman.

As a political scientist, Gerber views the attack as an assault on an economic, intellectual and cultural symbol of America. As a father, he had to try to answer when Yale asked him who is going to play catch with the children of the people killed in the buildings. "It is a question that is unanswerable," Gerber said.

Being at Ground Zero was emotionally exhausting, he said. "You feel you're going to cry. We held our tears. ... You kind of freeze and anesthetize those emotions."

Talking about Ground Zero, Gerber uses the words chasm, void and vacuum as if describing an emotion as much as a physical presence. It is a place of "muted voices, radically transformed lives and darkened memories," Gerber said.

"Even though there were thousands of visitors, it impresses as if it were a sacred site. There is solemnity."

Unplanned excursion

Sabrina Dunston's second-grader son, Austin, has been to Ground Zero twice. The first time was last May on a family trip that was supposed to stop in Washington, D.C. "He told my brother he wanted to see the back of the penny," Dunston said.

They continued on to New York City with no thought of going to Ground Zero until discovering that boat that took them to the Statue of Liberty had dropped them off only four blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Seeing it in person is different from the now-familiar TV images, Dunston says. "There's silence. You don't know how to deal with the feelings."

The Dunstons returned to their home in Thebes, Ill., but a cousin took Austin back East to visit his uncle again in July. They planned to see a NASCAR race and a baseball game but somehow ended up at Ground Zero again. "It is so deep that I almost cried," Austin said.

Austin has become a super patriot. He only wants to wear shirts with American flags on them. Almost every Sunday since Sept. 11, 2001, he has stood up at the Alexander Free Will Baptist Church and sung the country song "Proud to be an American."

After the long drive

Kent and Stephens emerged from the subway stop to find a huge, quiet crowd in the streets surrounding Ground Zero. As others have observed, New Yorkers, famed for being abrasive, had turned nice.

Many were leaving flowers, photographs of loved ones who had died and personal items at memorials at the edges of the site. Some were crying. Everybody at Ground Zero was feeling the same thing, Kent said. "That made it easier."

Talking about Ground Zero a year later, the 39-year-old Kent grew emotional describing photos in a new book about Sept. 11 -- especially a photo of people in one of the towers pressed up against the windows.

"I didn't know anybody personally," he said. "But it's still a very personal thing."

He thinks Ground Zero must be similar to the feeling of being at a Holocaust museum, that "some horrible, horrible thing happened here."


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