On Somber Eve, Business as Usual in New York City

Nat E. Jedrey

A flag flies at half mast on Cambridge Common yesterday.

NEW YORK—Today in New York City, the president of the United States, the governor of the State of New York, the mayor of New York City and hundreds of thousands of people from across the globe will commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Though the city is bracing itself for the raw emotions that will no doubt be generated by the anniversary, the mood in New York on the eve of the anniversary seemed to be one of business as usual.

Men and women in business suits buzzed on cell phones as they bustled from building to building in Lower Manhattan, and taxi cabs zipped through the streets where vendors hawked their wares.

The New York Stock Exchange, virtually around the corner from where the World Trade Center once stood, was open for business yesterday, and despite a few more barricades and security guards and a giant flag that was draped across its front, there were few signs reflecting the tragedy that occurred just one year ago today.

Businesses shut down for weeks and months following the attacks have since been re-opened. And one of the worst-damaged stores, a Brooks Brothers store located across the street from Ground Zero, will open its doors today for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001.

At Stuyvesant High School, just blocks from Ground Zero, school will be in session today. Though the school has provided counselors for any students who are feeling troubled or scared about the anniversary, teachers said there were no large ceremonies or assemblies planned for the anniversary and that it would be a “low-key” day.

Stuyvesant students said life has more or less returned to normal since one year ago, when they ran from the school up the West Side Highway as the second tower collapsed.

“I don’t feel like there’s a change,” said sophomore Daniel Liebowitz.

He said that even after having been forced to evacuate the building, flee from the collapsing second tower and hike three hours to his home in the Bronx—on just his fourth day of high school—he is not scared to be going to school in Lower Manhattan.

There are still concerns about the air quality of the school caused by the dust and debris generated by the collapse of the two towers. Parents protested outside the building on the first day of school this year, arguing that the building was still unsafe for their children.

But the students seemed unconcerned about the air quality and their proximity to Ground Zero yesterday.

To them, Stuyvesant is just their school, and yesterday was simply their fourth day of the school year.

The Stuyvesant students and teachers reflect the attitude of a city that wants desperately to move on from the worst tragedy in its history.

And though they will pause, reflect and remember the horrors of Sept. 11, New Yorkers yesterday echoed the message their state leaders have been sending to the world for months: New York is back in business.

One Year Later, Reliving a Tragedy

Harvard lost at least 19 of its alumni and relatives on Sept. 11, and scores of alumni lived through last year’s attacks.

Gene Plotkin ’00 works for Goldman Sachs, whose offices are just a six or seven-minute walk from the World Trade Center.

“On Sept. 11, I woke up a little later than usual,” Plotkin said. “When I was getting ready to go to work, I heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, but it sounded from the news that it was a small plane.”

So Plotkin got on the subway in Brooklyn, where he lives, and headed off to work.

On his walk to work he said he saw people in a bar gathered around a television that was showing an image of the Twin Towers in flames but that he was still not struck by the magnitude of what was happening.

“Right as I got to the building, everyone was going out,” Plotkin said. “I saw someone who seemed very distraught and she said a second plane had hit and they think it’s a terrorist attack.”

He then tracked down his coworkers, with whom he headed to a bar where they watched on television as the events of the day unfolded.

Plotkin was struck by the fact that just five days earlier he had been at the top of the World Trade Center at the Windows on the World restaurant, and he remembered how in awe he had been at the time that “humans are able to construct something so magnificent, so tall, so beautiful.”

And there he was, five days later, sitting in a bar, watching the towers collapse in front of his very eyes, on the television screen.

“At one point we looked outside the bar, and it was like nighttime,” Plotkin said. “Outside, it was a scene like Hiroshima—there was debris everywhere, and people were handing out water and hospital-type masks to cleanse the air.”

But Plotkin said he—like most other New Yorkers—has regained a sense of normalcy in his life.

“I think for most people nobody thinks about it anymore,” he said. “Obviously there will be many events to commemorate the attacks and to remember the sacrifices people made...but New Yorkers are known for being blasé, and maybe this is one case where it’s served them well.”

“The only thing that’s really missing, aside from the people who were lost and can never be replaced, are those monuments you used to see everyday,” Plotkin continued, referring to the Twin Towers.

Jason Whitlow ’99, who created a website last year shortly after the attacks so that alumni living in New York could let their classmates know they were alright, said it is emotionally draining to remember what he went through last year.

His sister and many friends and classmates were living in New York at the time.

“I think that I don’t want to sit down in front of the TV if there are any specials,” Whitlow said. “If anything, I will be spending the time with friends and talking about it.”

Some current Harvard students held off their return to Cambridge so that they would be in New York for the Sept. 11 anniversary.

Madeleine S. Elfenbein ’04 said she stayed in New York to participate in the ceremonies commemorating the anniversary.

“Tonight I’m going to the ‘Our grief is not a cry for war’ rally-vigil in Washington Square Park to gather with fellow New Yorkers to express our opposition to state terrorism in response to our tragedy,” Elfenbein wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “Tomorrow I’m going to a local church to participate in a ceremony where I will help to ring the bell 3,000 times to commemorate the victims of a year ago.”

Margot Kaminski ’04 will be remaining in New York—but not for the anniversary. Kaminski’s driver’s test is scheduled for 9 a.m. this morning.

“I was not a particularly happy person when I realized the test was scheduled for Sept. 11,” Kaminski said. “Everyone else in the world will be saying prayers, and I’m going to be taking my road test.”

But Kaminski said she will actually be happy to be doing something mundane on the anniversary.

“I’m really against a lot of the memorials because I think a lot of it has been commercialized and is a little bit too sappy,” she said. “My family feels similarly that it makes more sense to go through the routine of your life than to sit and carp on it for a while.”

But Kaminski is a little nervous about the fact that she will be returning to Cambridge this afternoon. The thought of flying on the anniversary of Sept. 11 is slightly unnerving, to say the least, Kaminski said.

Baratunde R. Thurston ’99, a former Crimson executive and the first class marshal for the Class of 1999, has the distinction of having being born on Sept. 11. He was celebrating his birthday last year with a visit to his mother in the suburbs of South Boston when he learned of the attacks.

Though some born on Sept. 11 have decided to celebrate their birthdays on alternate days or not at all, Thurston said he plans on celebrating his birthday—in honor of Sept. 11.

“On midnight, Sept. 11, 2001, it hit me when I got back to Boston that...for the rest of my life, my birthday is going to be like D-Day, but worse, and I realized I’m not going to be going out to the clubs to celebrate,” he said. “But then I realized that’s probably the best way to deal with it—we’re alive and in pretty good shape, and let’s celebrate it while we’re here.”

Commemorating the Anniversary

Ceremonies and prayer services have occurred throughout the New York region all week long, including a ceremony held Monday in Battery Park to unveil 25 new names—those of New York Police Department (NYPD) officers lost during last year’s attacks—engraved on a police memorial there. There was also a candlelight vigil held in Nassau County, Long Island, on Monday night, to remember the 300 Nassau County residents who never returned home from work on Sept. 11, 2001.

The official anniversary ceremonies commenced around 1 a.m. this morning with bagpipe and drum processions beginning in each of the five boroughs and ultimately converging at Ground Zero. They will march down the ramp to the floor of the seven story-deep excavation, where they will remain until the beginning of the ceremony at the World Trade Center.

That ceremony will commence with a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., the moment the first plane struck the World Trade Center. The moment of silence will be followed by a reading of the Gettysburg Address by New York Gov. George Pataki.

Family members of victims will perform readings at 9:03 a.m. and 9:59 a.m. to mark the moment when the second plane struck and the moment when the South Tower collapsed, respectively.

During the ceremony, family members will be allowed to lay flowers or mementos on the floor of the Ground Zero site.

At 10:28 a.m., NYPD and Fire Department of New York buglers will play Echo Taps.

And at 10:29 a.m., bells will toll throughout the city in memory of the collapse of the North Tower.

This ceremony will be ended by a reading of the Declaration of Independence by New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey and the playing of patriotic music.

This evening, there will be a ceremony in Battery Park to light an Eternal Flame in “The Sphere,” a sculpture which sat atop the granite fountain at the center of the World Trade Center Plaza, and candle-lighting vigils throughout the five boroughs.

At the Heart of the Tragedy

Throughout the day yesterday, thousands visited the Ground Zero site.

They were New Yorkers, family members of the victims and visitors from foreign lands who came to show their support and see the site of the bloodiest day on American soil since the Civil War.

Reporters from around the world interviewed those gathered at the site and took photos of Ground Zero.

The visitors left flowers and trinkets and signed sheets of paper spread out on the floor of the viewing platform, leaving messages of sympathy, support and hope.

One visitor, a Virginia Beach chaplain who did not wish to be identified by name, said the trip was his eighth pilgrimage to Ground Zero.

The chaplain said he had volunteered at the Salvation Army tent at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, the site where debris from the World Trade Center was transferred and sifted through in the search for the bodies of those lost on Sept. 11. He also spent time in the tent at Ground Zero last March, praying with relief workers.

Asked why he had traveled so far, the chaplain responded, in a quavering voice, “On 9/11, I stood in my living room watching the towers come down—and I knew I had to come.”

Throughout the day yesterday, volunteers and family members stood sentinel at the site, reading obituaries of those lost in the attacks from a compilation published by The New York Times.

Jim Kelly, one of four who began reading the obituaries at 9 a.m. Monday morning, said it was an incredibly emotional experience.

“It’s beyond moving because there’s a picture of the person looking at you,” Kelly said. “It’s like they’re standing right next to you.”

Scott Cleere was among those who read a loved one’s obituary aloud to the crowd gathered at Ground Zero.

Cleere lost his father, James, a businessman from Iowa who happened to be in New York for a meeting on the morning of Sept. 11.

Scott Cleere was James’ oldest son. This was his first trip to Ground Zero.

“I was expecting something different,” he said. “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.”

Scott was driving to his job in the Florida school system on the morning of Sept. 11 when his mother called him and told him to pull over because she had bad news.

He continued on his way to work but made it through only two hours before taking the rest of the day—and the following four days—off to deal with his grief.

Scott’s father was never found. And though his mother was given an urn full of dust and ash from Ground Zero, he has no concrete reminder of his father. He said he is hoping to get permission to carry a handful of dust or debris from Ground Zero back with him to Florida.

Though each obituary read yesterday brought a tear to the eyes of those gathered at Ground Zero, one of the more incredible moments was when it was announced that a Colombian family had asked to have the obituary of their loved one, Sonya Artiz, read aloud. As it was read, a cell phone was held up so that the obituary could be broadcast on a local radio station and heard by the family.

At the east corner of the Ground Zero pit stands the sole remainder of what once was New York’s World Trade Center—two steel beams connected to form a cross. The rest of the remnants—the steel, the glass, the bodies of those who toiled each day inside the buildings—are gone.

Gone, but not forgotten.

In today’s ceremony, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will begin a reading of the names of each and every soul who perished in the attacks on the World Trade Center. And whatever monument, memorial or office building complex is ultimately constructed on the site, it will forever be hallowed ground.

As a sign stretched across the scaffolding on the viewing platform at the south end of Ground Zero proclaims, “We will never forget.”

—Staff writer Kate L. Rakoczy can be reached at rakoczy@fas.harvard.edu.