By Julie Shapiro
Jean Grillo shouted over the jackhammers along Liberty St. last month, shepherding a crowd of tourists behind her.
Grillo was speaking about the past — the construction of the Twin Towers — but the present World Trade Center construction was getting in the way. Waving her arm, Grillo gestured for the tourists to follow her into the much quieter World Financial Center.
The past, present and future overlap at the W.T.C. site, just like they overlap for the thousands of people who survived the attacks. Grillo, a longtime Duane St. resident, usually focuses on the future: She prepares for potential emergencies as head of Tribeca’s Community Emergency Response Team, and she molds the recovery of her neighborhood as a public member of Community Board 1.
But several times a month, Grillo returns to the chaos and emotion of 9/11. She tells her story to tourists from across the country and beyond for the Tribute W.T.C. Visitor Center.
“Our job is to reach out to people who want to hear our story,” Grillo said. “I get wrapped up in the tour and [the site] becomes a different place.”
Grillo’s tour is about history and emotion, but, much like the site itself, it is also about the government and politics. The tourists reconcile their expectations for the site with what they actually find there. Some have seen renderings of the buildings and memorial in the media and expect them to be complete. Grillo said many are shocked to see how much work is left and how much longer it will take.
“A lot of people feel very strongly that the memorial should have been built first and everything else should have gone up around it,” said Grillo, who agrees. “People from Washington come, and they say the Pentagon memorial is up.”
Wendy Aibel-Weiss, director of exhibits and education at the Tribute Center, has also heard concern from visitors.
“They’re really surprised,” Aibel-Weiss said. “They don’t understand why anything should take this long. We say it’s very complex — it’s also a burial ground, not just a construction site…. When it’s done, it’s going to be so fabulous. We try to stay extremely positive.”
As Brenda Morris, 43, from Washington State, looked down at the construction during Grillo’s tour last month, she said it had changed a lot since the last time she had seen it two years ago, though she had still expected it to be further along.
“But I didn’t see what it looked like right after [the attacks],” she added. “With the debris, the catastrophe, it probably took a long time to clean up.” Of the planned designs, she said, “I think what they’re doing is beautiful.”
Morris, who was wiping away tears as Grillo finished telling her story, said this was her fourth time at the World Trade Center site since 9/11. She visits New York every couple of years for business and pleasure, and every time she comes, she also stops at the site to pay respects.
The tour ended at the memorial to the 11 American Express employees killed on 9/11, where 11 drops fall like tears into a pool inscribed with the names of the dead.
As the crowd dispersed, Diane McLaughlin, 55, paused to talk to Grillo.
McLaughlin is from Annandale, Va., near Washington, D.C. She once lived in Brooklyn but had not been back to the site since the attacks.
McLaughlin wasn’t surprised to see that new buildings are only just beginning to rise.
“It’s New York,” she said. “I totally get it. Bureaucracy in New York goes on like no other…. It’s frustrating, but when it’s built, it will be a good tribute. It would be nice to have an ‘Extreme Makeover’ in seven days, but that can’t happen.”
One of the last families to leave the American Express memorial was the Kirks. They were still jetlagged from flying in from England the night before, but they wanted to make the World Trade Center the first stop on their first trip to New York.
Tony Kirk, 54, standing with his wife and son, said he was astounded that the site looked so unfinished.
“It’s seven years,” he said. “I thought it would be more…,” he trailed off.
Upon hearing that the Tribute Center is privately funded, Kirk added that he felt the U.S. government had almost forgotten the importance of commemorating the attacks.
Kirk’s wife Angela, 54, said it was interesting to see the incomplete site, though it was not what she expected.
“It’s more raw,” she said.
Aria Grillo, Jean’s daughter, was also on the tour last month, and she used the same word when describing the site.
“Physically and emotionally, it is still a very undone story,” she said after the tour. “I don’t know if the tour will have as much potency when it’s a big beautiful park with the towers. Right now it looks like a big wound, and I think that hits home.”
About 150 people give tours for the Tribute Center, each with a connection to the site. Some lost family members in the towers, some barely escaped themselves, and others spent months after the attacks volunteering at the site. Each $10 tour is different, but all guides navigate their groups through the World Financial Center, explaining the site’s past and future while telling their own stories.
Grillo has been giving the tours for about a year and a half, and her daughter Aria, 25, saw the tour for the first time last month.
On that afternoon, once inside the quieter office buildings, Grillo stood before a semicircle of 30 tourists, her daughter at her side, a window behind them framing the cranes and steel rising from the pit.
The group listened with rapt attention as Grillo described being blown out of bed when the first plane hit the north tower, blocks from her Duane St. apartment. Grillo raced down to the street and her first thought, once she could believe what she was seeing, was of her niece Victoria Ionata, who had taken a job with Morgan Stanley one month earlier.
Grillo dashed back up to her apartment, but when the phone rang it was not Ionata but her daughter Aria, 10 days into her freshman year of college in Massachusetts.
“Mom, why have they bombed our neighborhood?” Aria Grillo asked.
Grillo was calm, both mother and daughter remember, assuring Aria that Ionata would be safe because the south tower had not been hit. The pair hung up the phone, and Grillo barely had time to gather her thoughts before the second plane swooped in. When her daughter called back, Grillo was hysterical and told her daughter to go to the dean’s office, not wanting her to be alone if she had to learn her cousin was dead. Aria Grillo kept calling, and her mother kept telling her to keep the line open.
At 10 a.m., Ionata called. She had arrived at work late that morning because she voted in the primary. She was in the mezzanine of the south tower when north tower was hit, and despite a voice over the intercom telling people to return to their offices, she bolted and got all the way to Canal St. before she stopped to call her aunt.
Grillo paused in her story, and as she continued, her voice trembled. The phone lines went down and Grillo was soon cut off from her daughter, who thought her parents were hurt. And Ionata’s mother, before learning her daughter was safe, feared she was dead. Retelling the trauma seven years later, Grillo began to cry. Aria Grillo put her arm around her mother’s shoulders.
“I was getting a little upset hearing it again,” Aria Grillo said afterwards. “I was worried maybe people wouldn’t care.… But people want to hear what happened down here.”
Aria Grillo said she rarely visits the site and can’t imagine telling her story to strangers the way her mother does.
“For me, it’s still very painful and very personal,” she said, “which it still is for my mother, but she really wants to get people to understand.”
Like many Downtown residents, Grillo and her family treated the World Trade Center like a backyard. Grillo has photos of her daughter kneeling on the plaza with dozens of other children on the first day of spring, trying to balance an egg on its end (a feat possible only at the equinox). Grillo shopped in the underground stores, rented cars from Hertz and spent the rainy day before 9/11 camped out in the Borders. Aria Grillo’s Sweet 16 in the Millenium Hilton had the towers as a backdrop — and Grillo had to scold her husband for taking pictures of the iridescent skyscrapers instead of their daughter.
“This was not just a place of world trade and finance,” Grillo told the group of tourists. “This was our home, a place to live and play.”
As Grillo concluded her story, she showed two photos, both taken from her corner.
The first seemed ordinary when it was taken but now has a ghostly quality. Rising above the bustle of the street and storefronts, the foggy blue-gray towers stand against the sky.
The next photo is one Grillo took on Sept. 12, 2001, as she evacuated her home. She turned toward the Trade Center, looked through the lens and captured, from nearly the same angle, the absence of what once had been there.
When Grillo later picked up the prints from that roll of film, she found seven identical copies of the photo of the missing towers, debris fluttering in the foreground. She turned to the man behind the counter and asked why he had printed so many extra copies.
He shook his head and told her each photo was distinct. Without realizing it, trying somehow to process what she was seeing, Grillo had stood on her corner and snapped the same photo over and over again without moving.