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Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11 - Trying to move on

Construction continued yesterday at ground zero in lower Manhattan as the city prepared for today's seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Construction continued yesterday at ground zero in lower Manhattan as the city prepared for today's seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks. (Scott Lewis for the Boston Globe)

NEW YORK --Seven years ago today, terrorists flew the plane carrying my father into the World Trade Center.

The crash of American Airlines Flight 11 was an extraordinarily public event. The death of the man who gave me my passion for sailing, baseball, playing the guitar, and telling a story is my private tragedy. I've never wanted to mix the two, the public with the private.

Everyone has seen the grainy video of the Boeing 767 slamming into the North Tower and exploding into flames. I've seen it far too many times. Every Sept. 11, countless memorial services, blood drives, and charity events commemorate the day. I've never been to any of them. Tens of thousands have paid their respects at ground zero. I had never been able to bring myself to come here.

Until now.

As a son, I decided it was time to finally visit the place where my father died, and try to move on. And what I saw is that ground zero has moved on, too.

In some ways, the locus of one of America's greatest tragedies has become just another storied block in this storied city, as normal as the passenger planes that descend over the Manhattan skyline on a clear September morning like silver dragonflies.

The place where the World Trade Center once stood is a cavernous construction project surrounded by bustling streets where vendors hawk photos of the burning towers and other Sept. 11 memorabilia to passing tourists; bankers and brokers rush to and from their offices with barely a glance toward the site where the foundations for buildings are being laid; and the roar of buses and tractors drowns out ordinary conversation.

As I watched men in orange hats navigate the warren of concrete and gravel, a spectator spoke up. "When do you think it will be finished?" he asked.

His name was Walter Saravia, a student at New York City College of Technology. When the first plane hit, Saravia was nearby. He couldn't get the smoke and the sirens out of his head for days. He had been by the memorial a number of times, but yesterday was the first time he had stopped to really look.

"It's like a bad memory you subconsciously avoid," Saravia said as he stared through a mesh wire fence at the giant ramp leading down to the floor of the site, lined by the flags of the nations whose citizens died in the Sept. 11 attacks. "When you're from the city, you start to take for granted what is here."

Today, families of the victims will be allowed to go down the ramp and lay flowers at the site. But the rest of the ceremonies will be held on a stage across the street from ground zero. They started doing that last year, instead of marking the day in the pit, according to Victor Valdez, a security guard at the site.

"It's a construction site now," Valdez said. "But it's also a meaningful place."

Valdez lost three friends here. Part of his job is to escort family of the victims to a small trailer inside the fence where, in a quiet and secluded spot, they can leave pictures and other mementos of the ones they lost. So I went in, and for a while, I searched the walls for a picture I knew I would not find.

Back outside the fence, in contrast to the solitude, ground zero seemed even more of a tourist attraction. Two young women from Kazakhstan, stopping by on their way to see the Statue of Liberty, pored through a picture book they got from a vendor depicting the explosions as the planes crashed into the towers, their collapse, and the grim aftermath in agonizingly graphic detail.

An Italian couple, Paolo and Danila Beraldi, stopped by the site to snap a picture of the construction cranes over ground zero; they had arrived in New York on Tuesday night, and "we felt we had to come here," Danila Beraldi said. The Sinclair family, of Belfast, took in the site during a layover on their way to Florida for a vacation.

"You couldn't come to New York and not see it," said Avrill Sinclair, who remembers The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which her three children are too young to have lived through. "When you look at it, it's hard to imagine such a terrible thing. It's a day we'll never forget."

John Morabito, a New York City firefighter with Ladder 10, isn't likely to forget the day, either. He was in the lobby of the North Tower when the South Tower collapsed, causing a shock wave that threw him in the air. He was amazed he walked away with no injuries. Yesterday Morabito was yucking it up with visitors, selling Ladder 10 T-shirts and posing with tourists for pictures.

So this was the place where the wars I covered for the Globe in Afghanistan and Iraq began. I watched this scene and wondered whether I should be trying to grieve in this public place. Even here, especially here, my thoughts were dominated by the grainy video of the plane. How and where did he die? On the ground? In the air? What was he thinking in those last moments? Where is he? Authorities found only a bit of bone, which they sent us in 2002 and we buried in a coffin smaller than a mailbox. What became of the rest?

Perhaps, as the parents of another victim suggested near the scene, his ashes were spread all over New York.

Across the street, I walked into a small museum dedicated to the tragedy of the towers and, again, searched through hundreds of pictures in vain.

Before I walked back out into the busy crowds and the bustling streets with the silver planes floating overhead like harmless dragonflies, before I left ground zero behind, I turned to a corner where, under the words "In Memoriam," a list of the victims was etched in stone.

That's where I found Al Filipov's name. I guess that's what they call closure.

David Filipov can be reached at