downtownexpress.com
Volume 19 | Issue 24 | Oct. 27 - Nov. 2, 2006 Talking Point

9/11 families don’t care about W.T.C. box beams

By Michael Burke

We, all of us, have one duty at ground zero — what was until the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the World Trade Center: to bear witness to the truth. It does not matter who we are, presidents, governors, mayors, billionaire developers, government officials, cultural experts, Downtown residents, witnesses, survivors, family members. The events of 9/11, the evil that struck, the death and destruction, the heroism and sacrifice bind us all equally and irrevocably. No one has the right to try and discard that truth or to substitute their version of it — for any reason.  

The memorial site must speak equally to future generations as it does to us.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln said the history of the site “has consecrated this ground far above our poor power to add or detract.” At ground zero, the exact opposite philosophy has been applied.

Recently it was announced that the W.T.C. Memorial Foundation, working with “9/11 families” and “preservation groups” will spend untold millions of public funds, whether gathered through taxes or donations, to construct a 120 foot by 120 foot area 60 feet below the W.T.C. plaza that is supposed to somehow convey the breadth and majesty of two, 110-story towers that soared into the sky. They will further construct “raised walkways” to protect ground that has seen countless truck, cars and foot traffic, and rain and snow. These walkways, like ones found in pristine natural areas, will provide views of the box beam column remnants of the Twin Towers — things that practically no one has ever expressed an interest in and could not recognize if their lives depended upon it.

I have been to bedrock every anniversary; I have never seen anyone paying any attention to those remnants. Preserving space like this, 60 feet underground with a ceiling 30 feet above, is neither sacred nor historic; it is a waste of precious memorial funds. Worse, it will distract people, into perpetuity, from the truth of 9/11. 

The “historic” box beam columns are not pictured in any book dedicated to 9/11; they are never featured in any exhibition or museum display. They are not featured on a single 9/11 Web site, even the crackpot ones, except for the “Coalition of 9/11 Families.”

I do not believe this is what the average person is sponsoring $500 stones for. I do not believe this is what corporations are contributing millions toward.

The museum’s responsibility is to faithfully convey the significance, magnitude and impact of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and Feb. 26, 1993. I know, because I was part of the advisory committee to the museum and memorial center that crafted the mission of the museum, as were, among others, Sara Bloomfield of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; Ric Burns, historian and filmmaker; Robert Kuhn, archaeologist for the State Historic Preservation Office; Kenneth Jackson of the New York Historical Society; Robert B. Tierney, chairperson of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission; and two survivors of the attacks, Chief Salvatore J. Cassano of the F.D.N.Y. and David Lim of the Port Authority Police Dept. — as well as five family members, including myself.

I am sure, in our many meetings and hours of work, never at any time did the words, “box beam column remnants” pass our lips. They were never considered for preservation or exhibition. They were never considered at all. Here’s why: They don’t matter.

What we did consider a great deal, and I would suggest it was our main focus, was to ensure that the visitors to the site, when they immediately arrive, standing where the W.T.C. once stood, would know immediately that this is where the attacks took place.

No one said, “let’s send them all underground, away from where the attacks occurred, away from where the witnesses stood and looked in horror, away from where people died, where others fled, where firefighters marched in response to their call of duty, where the buildings collapsed as the world watched. Let’s ignore all that and send them underground. Only then will they be able to appreciate the enormity of the events.”

No, strangely, none of us said that.

There is one reason the column remnants are being preserved: lawsuit. Anthony Gardner, executive director, or whatever his latest title is, of the Coalition of 9/11 Families, representing himself and at least five others, stood up and threatened the officials of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the W.T.C. Memorial Foundation with a lawsuit, further delaying development if the bedrock and box beam column remnants were not preserved. These officials weighed their duty and the governor’s and mayor’s commitment to the history of 9/11 at the site on one hand, and what the governor and mayor really wanted at ground zero: expediency. 

Good-bye history. Why should this decision be any different than any other at ground zero since the start?

Still, it is highly improper and unprofessional for the L.M.D.C. and Memorial Foundation to blow off the recommendations of its own advisory committee, many of them experts in the field of history and preservation, and also to ignore the obvious and stated wishes of the paying public that embraced the facade, the Koenig Sphere and the flag raisings as the icons of 9/11, and replace them with the demands of one irresponsible individual representing a handful. Maybe it’s not an illegal use of public funds; it is certainly an unethical use of them.

Bedrock is sacred ground. Not just because remains were found there, but because of how and why those people died. The how and why of their deaths must first be preserved; without that, nothing else will have any meaning.

 The towers rose from the plaza; even architect Minori Yamasaki’s design planned for that. That is where the life of the W.T.C. took place; that is where so many met for lunch and breaks; where many would have met on the beautiful day that was Tuesday, Sept. 11, but where so many, tragically, unjustly, perished instead.

It is unfortunate that “ground zero” seems to have inspired so many to fill up that space with what they think must go there, forgetting what was there. We must stop believing that the site won’t be complete without our imprint, whether we are family members or high concept intellectual memorial jury members. The exact opposite is true. Humility was the first virtue demonstrated by all the good people on 9/11 from which sprang the others of wisdom, compassion, courage, heroism and sacrifice. Let us use that as our inspiration on how to best commemorate it. We have a responsibility to the truth of that day — and to future generations.
 

Michael Burke is the brother of F.D.N.Y. Capt. William F. Burke, Jr., Eng. 21, who was killed at the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001.

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