Volume 18 • Issue 12 | August 12 - 18, 2005

Revisiting ground zero to record 9/11 tales

By Vanessa Romo

Standing inside the World Trade Center PATH station, Peter William Blaich feared his knees might buckle under him. Normally he avoids Lower Manhattan altogether because being anywhere near the former site of the Twin Towers induces haunting memories of former colleagues, friends and strangers, but remembering was the point of his visit on Aug. 2.

In 2001 Blaich, 33, was a firefighter with Engine 9, one of the first firehouses to respond to the call at the W.T.C. after the first plane smashed into the North Tower on Sept. 11. “That morning I came into work and relieved another fireman. About five to 10 minutes into my tour, that’s when 9/11 happened,” he said pacing himself, speaking slowly in stop-and–start sentences. “My company made it up to the 35th floor. But we received a transmission that collapses were imminent. We decided to start heading back down with about a dozen injured civilians. When we arrived in the lobby, the North Tower started to collapse. We got down into the sub-basement and that allowed us access to Vesey St. Three civilians in the lobby didn’t make it. It took us an hour to an hour and forty-five minutes to get out.”

He spent the next few months, knee-deep in rubble and debris.

Blaich, a fourth generation New York City firefighter, is one of hundreds of Sept. 11 rescue workers, survivors and relatives of victims of the terrorist attacks who have recorded their stories as part of an ongoing nationwide oral history project called StoryCorps.

Most of those stories have been recorded away from the World Trade Center site, but on July 12, StoryCorps began documenting tales near the W.T.C. PATH station. The group has recorded 75 stories in the new booth, most of which relate to 9/11, said Johanna Flattery, a StoryCorps spokesperson.

The project is the brainchild of radio producer David Isay who modeled StoryCorps after the Works Progress Administration recordings of the 1930s. With the help of a facilitator, participants record a 40-minute interview in a recording studio. At the end of their session they are given a CD of the recording and with their permission a second copy is archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

The W.T.C. booth is part of an interim memorial at ground zero. It includes an audio gallery with excerpts of interviews that are switched out regularly.

It is open to the general public and is not limited to stories about the terrorist attacks, however, priority is given to anyone directly affected by the events of Sept 11.

“I don’t think there’s a lot out there to record the history of everything that happened,” said Blaich who is now stationed at Ladder 123 in Brooklyn and is dismayed by the slow progress of a permanent memorial for the victims. “People come down here and they want to see something and they just look at a big hole through a fence. People are looking to get a piece of it or become a part of it but there’s nothing out there for them. Everyone has a right to be a part of it. To tell the story like it was.”

The structure is sleek and modern — mostly glass and metal — and contains a waiting room in addition to the recording studio built for two. The latter looks like a cross between a sauna and a confessional. Soundproofing wood slats line the walls and dim L.C.D. lights change color schemes, mimicking the flicker of votive candles. It is simultaneously calming and comforting, and can be disassembled and transported easily.

“We wanted to create a sacred little space among the hustle and bustle of the site,” said Michael Shuman, one of the architects from MASdesign who designed the booth and also participated in the design of the mobile units. “People come in with a lot of emotion and the space has a therapeutic effect on them,” he said.

Although the booth will remain in its present location on the concourse level of the W.T.C. PATH station for a full year, plans for the future remain vague. “It is our hope that the stories recorded in the booth ultimately become part of the final memorial but no decision has been as to whether will be incorporated or not,” said Flattery.

The project is funded by a $500,000 grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and is the second recording studio opened by StoryCorps. The first, and only permanent booth, has been operating in Grand Central Station since 2003 where more than 3000 interviews have been recorded.

On a recent afternoon, Randi Gold, 34, visited the booth with her 16-year-old daughter after hearing about it on the news. “You hear how much a person means to a family and it puts a face on it,” said Gold, a Brooklyn native who remembers the day vividly. Wiping tears from her eyes she added, “It’s not just numbers.”

Hours of operation vary but reservations can be made online at www.storycorps.net or by phone at (800) 850-4406. Participants are asked to make a $10 donation.


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