Volume 20, Number 40 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | DEC. 29, 2010 - JAN. 5, 2011

Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds

Workers lower the callery pear, 9/11 survivor tree into its new resting place at the National 9/11 Memorial last Wednesday.

One survivor from 9/11 returns home, for good

BY Aline Reynolds

One steadfast survivor of 9/11 was brought back to its home at the World Trade Center site last Wednesday.

The callery pear, nicknamed the “survivor tree,” was nearly destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. Nine years later, the tree, back in good health, was returned to Ground Zero and joined 124 swamp white oaks now planted at the National 9/11 Memorial.

Richard Cabo, the tree’s primary caretaker since 9/11, was all smiles last Wednesday morning as he watched workers lower his beloved tree into a ditch at its permanent home on the plaza. Cabo plans to return to the site next April to check up on the tree.

The “survivor tree” is a “testament [to] our ability to endure the symbol of our unshakable belief in a brighter future,” according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who kicked off the 9/11 Memorial planting ceremony last Wednesday. Themes of endurance and renewal the tree evokes, he added, are central to the holiday season. The mayor previously appeared at the plaza to witness the planting of the 50th oak tree in October.

“This tree is a key element of the memorial plaza’s landscape,” said Joe Daniels, president of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The W.T.C. site, once emblematic of destruction and “hellish conditions,” Daniels said, now symbolizes “beauty and peace.”

In October 2001, the callery pear tree was uncovered at Ground Zero amid the rubble with a blackened trunk, broken roots and only one living branch. Against all odds, the N.Y.C. Parks Department believed it could be salvaged.

“Trees are pretty resilient things,” said Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “It’s in their DNA to come back from wounds.” 

A month later, the tree was carefully transported to the Arthur Ross Nursery in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, where Richard Cabo, who now serves as the Parks Department’s citywide nursery manager, resuscitated it.

He and his colleagues stabilized the injured tree by planting it in hearty soil and by frequently fertilizing and pruning it. “Over time, she took care of herself, but in the beginning, it was a lot of care,” said Cabo.

Cabo affectionately refers to the tree as a “she” because over time it became “more and more dear” to him. And the Arthur Ross team carved out an exclusive space for the tree at the nursery and built a memorial around it.

“We were just taking care of it ‘cause we got attached to it, and it was important to us,” said Cabo. Little did they know that, years later, it would become the only survivor tree to return to its home.

The tree’s resilience was tested yet again when it was knocked over by violent winds at the nursery last March. The team managed once more to save its life.

“We watered it a lot so it wouldn’t go into shock,” said Cabo, who filled the roots’ holes with soil and added a layer of wooden bark chips on top of the roots to limit its exposure to the cold.

“Again, we and the tree refused to throw in the towel,” Bloomberg said of the rescue mission. “We replanted the tree, and it bounced back immediately.”

The “survivor” tree dates back to the 1970s, when it was planted near Towers Four and Five on the eastern side of the former W.T.C. site. It distinguishes itself from the plaza’s oak trees, Benepe explained, by sprouting white flowers rather than acorns.

“It’s very much a sign of spring when the callery pears bloom, ‘cause it’s the first tree to bloom before the cherries blossom,” said Benepe.

The six other 9/11 survivor trees – three callery pears and three leaf lindens – are permanently planted near City Hall and at the Manhattan entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.

National 9/11 Memorial and Museum Board Member Keating Crown, who also spoke at Wednesday’s planting ceremony, said, “It’s a privilege to be here today on the planting of this special tree that survived the 9/11 attacks.” Crown escaped death on 9/11 when he descended the last usable stairwell from the 78th floor in the south tower.

The tree, Crown continued, is a meaningful symbol for 9/11 survivors such as himself. “The fact that this tree survived such devastation reminds us all of the capacity the human spirit can endure.” 


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