Volume 20, Number 7 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 25 - September 1- 7, 2010

Downtown Express photos by Aline Reynolds

The trees arrived at the nursery three years ago, when they were neatly placed in rows, 40 feet away from each other. “They’re positioned to have as much sunlight and to give them the best growing conditions,” said Ronaldo Vega, director of design for the 9/11 memorial. “And as soon as they got their tags, they started to have a life of their own.”

W.T.C. site has new life; first trees are planted

BY Aline Reynolds

Life has returned to the World Trade Center site nine years after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In Millstone Township, N.J. last weekend, sixteen trees were pruned and prepped for delivery to the National September 11 Memorial.

A small team of arborists loaded the 21,000-pound trees onto large trucks, two per truck, to make the hour-and-a-half drive into Lower Manhattan. They started on Friday morning at 7:30 a.m., working 26 hours straight amid hot daytime temperatures. They encased each tree in tarp, tied them up and carefully positioned them on the flatbed trucks. The workers placed barrels of hay on the trucks to lessen the vibrations during the journey to Manhattan. Loading each tree took roughly 30 minutes.

“It’s a jigsaw puzzle,” said Tom Cox, founder and chief operating officer of Environmental Design, the company hired by the 9/11 Memorial and Museum to oversee the project. Cox was supervising the prep work at the nursery on Friday.

“It’s a constant choreography of getting all the trees laced together so that when we arrive at the site, [we] end up with trees in as pristine a condition as you possibly can,” Cox said. “Anybody can tie in a tree, but if they [wrap the branches too tight], you end up with dead branches in two months.”

“Let’s go just give it a good kick and we’ll work the trunk back over,” he told the workers. “They know what to do — it’s just somebody has to be the ringmaster of the circus every now and then.”

Delivering the trees is the final stage of a project that dates back to winter 2007-08. The E.D. crew visited nearly 50 nurseries in search of 2,000 swamp white oaks and sweet gums, hearty trees that live primarily in Northeastern and Midwestern states.

In a symbolic gesture, the nurseries were mostly located in states impacted by the September 11th attacks: Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York.

“They already relate to [9/11] because they come from the states that were traumatized,” said Ronaldo Vega, design director for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

Each tree was measured, photographed, and cataloged by a team of landscape architects.

Out of the 2,000 trees, only 500 made the cut.

“They’ve got a particular shape that they’re looking for,” said Mark Merit, chief operations officer for Environmental Design. “And they had to be healthy in all criteria,” such as leaf color and structure.

Also, the trees had to be cared for at a nursery within 50 miles of the W.T.C. site.

“They have to be in a similar microclimate to what they’ll experience when they’re actually on the memorial plaza,” Merit explained.

The choice of swamp white oaks and sweet gums was easy: compared to other trees, they are resilient and low-maintenance.

“They thrive in a less-than-perfect environment,” Merit said. “They’re okay with not as much water and irrigation, they don’t need the best quality air.”

And for the most part, they’re bug-resistant.

But they still require constant attention. An arborist from E. D. was permanently stationed at the nursery; his sole job being to monitor the trees from the first day they arrived.

Vega also keeps close watch via a web cam at his office near Ground Zero. Special attention was paid to the trees during the winters, when temperatures fall below freezing. The bases of the trees are covered with Styrofoam blankets to keep the roots from freezing.

“I’d call Jason and I’d say, ‘Tree #235’s pants are falling down,’ and he’d take care of that,” said Vega.

The meticulous care of the memorial trees has paid off. Typically, John Heallan, an arborist for E.D., and his team will lose three to five percent of trees during similar projects. They’ve only lost one so far in this project; it was struck by lightening a year ago.

The arborists are going to do everything they can to make sure they don’t lose any at the plaza. Some of the trees at the Pentagon Memorial had to be replaced, Vega said, because they weren’t properly cared for.

“They just slapped them in there for show. They didn’t have a long-range plan,” he said.

During a short afternoon break on Friday, crane operator Tom Jensen from Jackson, N.J. told Downtown Express how grateful he was to partake in such a momentous project.

“It feels like an honor and a privilege,” he said. “It’s part of being American.”

Vega also was emotional.

“To me it means that we bring life back to that horrible, horrible, tragic site,” Vega said. “All we think about when we see [Ground Zero] is death and destruction. Except for tomorrow, when we’ll talk about life, renewal, and rebirth.”

Trees arrive in good shape at the 9/11 memorial

At 10 a.m. Saturday morning, a small crowd of 9/11 Memorial and Museum officials, arborists and media assembled at Memorial Plaza to watch one of the first trees be planted. Cranes lifted the swamp white oak 80 feet into the air, steadily lowering it down to the western side of the plaza. Fifteen other trees were installed on the site within 16 hours on Saturday.

The day was emotional for all involved.

“We’re going to plant 400 trees in the name of 3,000,” Vega said. “We wish we could plant one for each one of them, but we don’t have that space.”

Governor David A. Paterson said in a statement, “It symbolizes rebirth and growth, and as part of the larger World Trade Center Development Plan, is a powerful sign that our great City, State, and nation are moving forward on healing the wound which was inflicted almost nine years ago.”

“The trees will create a space of reflection, and remembrance apart from the sights and sounds of the City,” said 9/11 Memorial President Joe Daniels.

Workers began installing the trees at around 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning as they were hauled in from a nursery in central N.J., where the trees have been looked after for three years. The truckers will make an additional 200 round trips to transport the remaining trees. The white oaks will surround the reflecting pools, while two rows of sweet gums will encircle One W.T.C. once it is built.

Julie Meehan, a middle school English teacher from N.J. journeyed to the site with her husband and a friend from Rwanda on Sunday.

“An oak is a symbol of strength,” she said, gazing at the trees in the distance. “It signifies birth, a small thing growing into something large and indomitable.”

She compared it to the overall redevelopment of the site.

The oaks and sweet gums, which are now between 28 and 30 feet tall, will grow one or two feet each year until they rise roughly 100 feet into the air. The swamp white oaks will have a 200-year life span, if properly cared for, and the sweet gums could live 100 years.

The plaza, made up of layers of concrete slabs underneath and adjacent to the trees, will have built-in fertilizers and irrigation tubes to constantly nourish and protect them. Once all the trees are at the site, arborists will “examine the density and color of the leaves,” and walk through a tunnel underneath the plaza to “make sure the soil is moist,” said Heallen.

One of six callery pear trees that were rescued from the rubble after the 9/11 attacks will accompany the white oaks and the sweet gums at the plaza.

“It was burnt to a crisp except for one little branch that pushed its way out, 12 inches long, with five or six leaves on it,” said Vega.

It was salvaged a second time after being knocked down by heavy winds last winter.

The next round of trees will arrive at the plaza in early October. Their delivery will be coordinated with the ongoing construction of the plaza. Michael Frazier, senior communications manager of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, said the majority of the trees will be standing at the plaza next year, in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

“I think it’s a nice idea ,” said Netherlands tourist Suzie Otto, who was admiring the trees from the World Financial Center at sunset on Sunday. “Between all the concrete and machines, you can see that there’s life over there.”

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