NEW YORK CITY – A stranger shoves a thin booklet of glossy photos into my hand and begins explaining them. Here's the World Trade Center before, here it is after, from this angle …
My first reaction is to take it, thank him and hurry across Church Street while the light is still green. But the reality clicks in: This isn't Durango. This man isn't a volunteer with the chamber of commerce, handing out a freebie and helping me get up to speed on recent construction at the site of one of the world's most heinous attacks.
No, this is the Big Apple, and this is what you get. At one place in time it's a guy trying to make a living off the goodwill of an innocent visitor. And at a different place in time, it's hundreds of heroic firefighters, police and citizens trying and dying to help out their fellow man.
It is a gray day, and soon a light rain will dampen the city most directly affected by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. I am here with former Durangoan Nadia Fristensky to witness the progress on a new complex of buildings rising up from the ashes in Lower Manhattan.
I push the booklet back into the man's hands, thank him out of habit and find a more official-looking visitor's booth. The man inside has advice on a better way to experience the site than to look through the gaps in the fence netting that from ground level hide the 16-acre World Trade Center complex under construction.
There's a 3 p.m. tour to be led by a member of the September 11th Families Association. That sounds like the best deal we've heard yet, so we cruise around the huge block to 120 Liberty Street and the Tribute WTC Visitor Center.
You all know why this area has been in the news a lot lately. While it's good that we haven't forgotten, it's disappointing that our focus is on a sideshow. Whether or not you believe that there's a place for a mosque (or Islamic cultural center, or whatever) a couple minutes away from here on foot – and there are good arguments on both sides – can't everyone find a way to get along?
Intolerance. That's how our tour guide, Doug Gomez, summarizes the events of Sept. 11 in one word.
Gomez was bicycling that morning along the Hudson River, not far from his home and not far from the WTC complex where he worked.
Marcus Cooke, who lives in the Bronx and also helped guide the tour, was off duty from his security guard job at the complex on the morning of Sept. 11.
“There is no way of sugar-coating what happened here,” says Gomez as he begins his tour along the Firefighters Monument off Liberty Street. “So I won't.”
And he's true to his word. He tells us how he watched as the second plane tilted its wings and flew – “directly over your heads” – into the top of the south tower. He tells how he and others watched in groups from the ground as the buildings burned, people leapt to their deaths from the highest floors, and cars parked nearby with radios blaring, broadcasters describing the same surreal scene they were witnessing first-hand.
After the “wind tunnel of ash of pulverized furniture and concrete” began to settle, he came to help. In the end, there was little to do other than carry body bags, a task which, Gomez notes, the firefighters performed with the solemnity of pallbearers.
Cooke, the security guard, lived at Fort Carson when he served in the Army. His training didn't prepare him.
“None of us imagined something as horrific as what occurred,” he says.
A few months after the attack he was watching a History Channel documentary about Sept. 11. He noticed a female co-worker holding open a building door for firefighters to rush through. She did not survive, nor did several other fellow guards.
“That day, my co-workers showed me what they were really made of,” he says.
The new “Freedom Tower,” soon to be the world's tallest building at 105 stories and a symbolic 1,776 feet, has reached 34 stories and is projected for completion in 2013.
An 8-acre memorial will include trees and two waterfall pools, named “Reflecting Absence,” set in the footprints of the original twin towers. Names of the victims of both the Sept. 11 attacks and the 1993 bombing that left six dead will be inscribed along the perimeter of the pools. The memorial is scheduled to be unveiled Sept. 11, 2011, a decade to the day of the terrorist attacks.
Gomez barely mentions the mosque controversy. He just leaves us with that word to wrestle with, intolerance.
Cooke makes a plea directly to the 25 of us taking this tour.
“Tell people the story of what happened here,” he says, the emotion obviously still raw. “Don't let them forget.”
johnp@ durangoherald.com For more photos and blog entries, visit www.summerdetour.com