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Frank R. Shaw FSA Scot
Ground Zero: A Personal View from the Ground Up


On a visit to New York City just before Christmas, my wife, Susan, and I had the privilege of going to the site of the "attack on America" at the World Trade Center, now forever to be known as "Ground Zero". It was a humbling, emotional experience, none like I have known in the 63 years I have been living. You cannot get ready for this visit. You may think you know what awaits you at Ground Zero, but trust me, you don’t! Unlike other visits to New York, this one had an emotional edge to it because of September 11, 2001. On the way from City Hall to the site, there was a strange quietness in the police car that had been assigned to us from the Mayor’s office. Our driver was Police Officer Louis Guglielmo, who escorted us inside Ground Zero to the viewing stand where families of the victims mourn their loved ones and where dignitaries from various countries around the world pay tribute to their own citizens who were murdered without cause or provocation that infamous day.

During the journey to Ground Zero, we passed a fire station, Engine Company No. 6, with its hastily made alter of flowers, burning candles and pictures of their dead warrior heroes who had given their lives helping others save theirs. People flock to the local fire stations to deposit flowers, pictures, candles, drawings, and notes of poetry and thanksgiving. These shrines, located all around the city for the fallen men and women from the fire department, police department and emergency medical units, are spontaneous outpourings of love and gratitude for those who made the supreme sacrifice for their fellow man. The New York Times reported that Nino’s Restaurant on Canal Street has been open since 9/11 serving food from volunteers throughout America who just want to do something to help their heroes. St. Paul’s Chapel, dedicated in 1776, a mere block away from Ground Zero, experienced no damage. Not even a window was broken. Go figure! The church has become a haven for the tired masses who labor at the site, continuing the cleanup as cots for sleep and food for hunger are offered on a 24/7 basis. Ironically, St. Paul’s Chapel is where George Washington prayed after taking the office as President of the United States.

The greatest financial symbol of what many think is America’s greatest city, if not the world’s, will be forever marked as holy and hallowed ground, where the dead are still slowly being freed one by one or one piece at a time as I write on the anniversary date three months later. On these shores of our nation, not far from where the Pilgrims gave thanks centuries ago, we know again that "War is Hell".

I’ve stood in many hallowed places throughout my life - Culloden Moor, Arlington Cemetery, Westminster Abbey, the remains of Holyrood Chapel, the Vatican (where Bonnie Prince Charlie, his brother and father are entombed), and the Rothiemurchus churchyard near Aviemore where Shaw Mor, the progenitor of Shaw’s, is buried, to name a few. I’ve stood over too many gravesites in my lifetime and wept for my father, my mother, my father-in-law, three sisters and a brother, not to mention the many dear friends who have gone on before me. But this ground is different. It is a place of innocence which was turned into a raging inferno that three months later still spews out smoke from the bowels of the World Trade Center as if to say, "America, never forget what happened here on September 11, 2001". I find it a bit strange that the 9/11 date of this unthinkable disaster are the same numbers most of us are taught to call when we need emergency help – 911.

New York is a thrilling city to visit anytime of the year but Christmas, ah Christmas, it is something very special. The stores are colorfully decorated, the windows bursting with the tidings of the holiday season, and the Rockettes, well, they annually pay tribute to the "happiest time of the year". There is a festiveness in the air just to walk down Madison, Park and Fifth Avenues. You see many Santa’s with their bells and their kettles collecting for those who are less fortunate than most of us. You know you are in New York City by the smell of chestnuts roasting in the street carts! Broadway and the museums beckon. You may graduate from the double pork chops at Mama Leone’s to the cheese parpadella at Bice on 54th. First timers can’t resist the carriage ride through Central Park. And then, there is the tree! What a sight! It makes your heart sing. This year it was seven stories high, bathed in over 30,000 lights - all red, white and blue - surrounded by dozens of American flags rippling through the breeze, saluting the tree and saying that this year is something special.

I’ve been to New York many times but have never felt the tug at my heart that I did this trip. You notice something else too - the cabbies are not blowing their horns as frequently, even though I’m told they are starting to get back to normal. You hear accounts of New Yorkers speaking the unspeakable "I’m sorry" or "Excuse me" when they bump into someone on the street. I just had to go to the Big Apple to pay my personal respects, stand in silence at Ground Zero, and walk over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a few minutes of prayer for the City and her people - those alive and those who are not. It was a heart thing.

I read many of the loving notes written on the "Wall of Nations" at Ground Zero, and they tell of loved ones lost and lost love. Notes from wives to husbands, husbands to wives, children to Mama or Daddy, parents to their children, brother to sister, sister to brother, and friend to friend are scribbled on the wall. George Bush eloquently wrote on the wall, "Good will overcome evil. May God bless us all." One simple message that has stayed with me is that of a man to his buddy. It was not the deep plaintiff cry of a loved one who had lost the most important person in their life. It was simply one buddy to another who could only express his memories of the many hours spent together over the years, all the confidences shared, and all the good times enjoyed: "Paul, I miss our fishing. Rich". Everyone on that platform spoke in hushed tones. No one visits the site and the "wall" without experiencing a catch in their voice, a lump in their throat, a knot in their gut, or a tear in their eye. If I told you I stood there on that platform and was not moved emotionally more than ever before, I would be telling you a lie.

Officer Guglielmo pointed out the cross of I-beams that has come to mean so much to those who toil in the aftermath of destruction. He told us how "the Cross", as it is now called, was found flanked by two other crosses when rescue workers entered Ground Zero for the first time after the disaster. There was a piece of sheet metal draped over and seared to one of the arms of the Cross, and the men debated whether or not to cut it off. They concluded it looked like a piece of a robe so they left it as a remembrance to Him. They moved the Cross to a safer place off to the left of the reviewing stand. Firemen, policemen, workers and volunteers of all faiths meet at the foot of the Cross every Sunday morning at 7:00 AM for a prayer service. It has become a symbol of what they are about. Go figure! It doesn’t take a genius. I want to personally thank Officer Guglielmo and his boss, Lt. Dan Henne, who will always be remembered by Susan and me as two of the finest of "New York’s finest" for their courtesies during our visit.

In a later email to Officer Guglielmo, I asked about a huge building to the right of the viewing stand that had an enormous gash in it from top to bottom as it stood there defiantly, like a wounded soldier, paying tribute to his fallen colleagues all around his feet. The officer informed me it was the Deutchebank building. Hundreds and hundreds of workers in the building were able to evacuate safely without the loss of one person. Yes, the definition of heroes has changed. No longer are overpaid, under performing ballplayers the measure of a hero in America today. Look it up in Webster’s and you’ll see a picture by the word "hero". It’s the picture of a member of the FDNY, NYPD, or medics from the RESCUE units going about their work of saving lives at the expense of their own at Ground Zero.

As I stood and reviewed this hallowed ground, I could not help but think of the three thousand senseless murders that occurred on that one spot right in front of me that will forever change the way Americans feel about their country. Most of the poor souls have not and might never be found. Their bodies are missing and, for some, only a part or two will be discovered, but that will at least allow some sort of closure to begin for their families.

What will happen on that small piece of land in the future that will be forever branded into our hearts and memories? I’m not worried about that or what will be built on that site. I’ll leave it up to Rudy Giuliani, "America’s Mayor". He now is one of a very select three or four people I claim as personal heroes. My father-in-law, Vic Etheridge, is the first to come to mind. James David, my brother-in-law, is another. The fourth? Well, the jury is still out! The good Mayor and the other powers that be will see that the right thing is done. Americans always have done the right thing about their dead. This time will be no different!

In conclusion, there really is not much to say that hasn’t already been said by the masters of the "saying trade" - the journalists and the talking heads of television. But perhaps our President said it best: "The world is beginning to understand why we all treasure America so much - our values, our freedom and the strength of the American character." Of the many patriotic cartoons that have come across my desk since September 11, one stands out. It shows a fireman holding aloft our Stars and Stripes, standing in the rubble and carnage of Ground Zero with an armed combat ready soldier reaching out for the flag as he says to the fireman, "I’ll take it from here." America is at war, and we wish our men and women in service well as they "take it from here"! On that day, Mr. Bush also said, "Today our nation saw evil…and we responded with the best of America." We always have. We always will.


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