Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Long 15 Years: Remembering 9/11

While I may not blog nearly as much as I used to, I feel drawn to do so in commemorating the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by members of al Qaeda. It is unbelievable to believe it has been 15 years since that awful day. There are kids growing up who have never known or seen the World Trade Center as the Twin Towers; they see that only in photos or videos.

Some of the feelings and memories are getting hazy, the further we get from that terrible day, and yet I can get yanked back to the days and weeks after the attacks with a simple smell - walking past construction sites where they're demolishing steel or welding metal. It's the scorched earth metallic smell that triggers a physical and emotional response for me.

That and sometimes commuting into Hoboken and seeing a clear blue sky on a crisp sunny morning in the Fall, with planes and contrails in the sky.

I'm sure I'm not alone in getting those feelings or memories. Many of us experienced this in real time - in real life. We worried about families, friends, and loved ones, and the strangers we knew commuted through to Manhattan. We worried about those who went up into the Towers to save lives and those who came plunging down and the families they left behind.

We worried about the people whose cars stayed at park and rides for days and weeks after the attacks because their owners were among the victims. We worried about what might come next.

It's for that reason I write about this every year. It's why we need to remember what happened, and how we got to where we are now. For instance, there's any number of books to be recommended for background on the site, the rebuilding efforts, and the politics behind all of it. Local and national media outlets are also ramping up their coverage for the 15th anniversary. For instance, the Record has devoted an entire area of their website to 9/11 coverage.

I've written essentially the same opening each of the past few years. It's still appropriate to remember today, as it was when I first wrote this:
September 11, 2001. New Yorkers were heading to the polls to vote in primary elections to determine the next mayor of the city. It was a morning full of promise and baseball fans were excited about the Yankees' chances of making the playoffs, the Mets thinking about the future, and the start of the new football season. In other words, it was a day not unlike the ones we've experienced once again this year.

While everyone was focused on the day ahead, another group of people were thinking about the mission that would forever alter the skyline of NYC and alter history. Al Qaeda's terrorists were already on board four jets bound for New York and Washington DC and had already overpowered the crews.

I was on a NJ Transit train with my dad when I first noticed something wrong at the WTC out of the corner of my eye; it was smoke coming from the upper reaches of the tower.

It was just around 8:45.

The world changed, and I didn't quite realize it. No one did.

People watching the morning news didn't know it either at first. But they would soon be glued to broadcasts that showed the horrors of the worst terror attacks ever perpetrated.

The damage done on that morning was nearly impossible to comprehend. In the mere blink of the eye, nearly 3,000 people were condemned to death and the World Trade Center would soon be reduced to a pile of rubble that would burn for weeks on end. Reports would come in that a third plane had struck and damaged the Pentagon.  But the death rattle of the Twin Towers would continue for just under two hours and victims trapped above the fires had to make the choice to stay and choke on the heat and smoke or jump to a certain death. All too many make that decision to jump. Firefighters on the ground also succumbed before the towers fell - falling debris hitting firefighters and fleeing people alike.

Victim Number One would be there to comfort those who fell. Rev. Mychal Judge of the FDNY was comforting fallen firefighters and office workers alike when he was struck and killed by debris. So many people inside the Department and around the City thought so highly of him that he was honored as the first victim of the attacks - so that he could comfort and aid all those many others who were murdered on that day - to guide them to Heaven. There are continuing efforts to see him sainted, and his ministrations to those in need, especially on that day, certainly would do his memory justice.
All too many would unfortunately follow him - and not by their own choice.

Here are remembrances of a few of those killed on 9/11, as written by my friend legalbgl for Project 2,996:

Donald H. Gregory (2015)
Steven Harris Russin (2014).
Lt. Col. Jerry Don Dickerson Jr. (2013).
Mary Lenz Wieman (2012).
Mark Francis Broderick (2011).
Captain Patrick J. Brown (2010).
Hagay Shefi (2009).
Alison Marie Wildman (2008).
Daniel Thomas Afflito (2007).
Donna Bernaerts-Kearns (2006).

Remembering what happened, why it happened, and what's happened to the people who were there on that horrible day, not to mention the consequences of the terror attacks are why I write this. It's also why the 9/11 Museum is so integral to commemorating and remembering. While the National 9/11 WTC Museum continues drawing millions of visitors a year, I still fervently believe that it should be brought under the auspices of the National Park Service with all their wherewithal and expertise in protecting our national heritage for future generations. The NPS would be a far better steward of this history and all it represents.

It's also why I think the museum should be free for all to come and bear witness to the events. This should be a no-brainer, and yet no one can agree on making that happen. The NPS already operates the 9/11 Memorial in Shanksville, PA, where Flight 93 crashed after passengers rose up to stop the terrorists from attempting to crash the plane into the Capitol or White House. It had been a long journey for that project to come to fruition, but the results are stunning. The families banded together to raise the money to obtain the land and build a suitable memorial - turning it over to the NPS. It was the right thing to do.

One of the reasons why the museum isn't free admission is that it's costly to maintain/operate the facility.  While Joe Daniels and the foundation has done an adequate job in bringing the museum to fruition, Daniels is stepping down after more than a decade running the foundation.

Historical artifacts from the WTC aren't found only at the WTC site or at Shanksville, but at memorials and museums across the country. Two of the biggest items have recently been made ready for the public - two PATH cars that were recovered from the WTC months after the attacks. They had been stored at JFK airport with other items, but were recently turned over to museums in Connecticut and Kingston, NY for display. The repository at the airport finally shut down earlier this year.

Also, the long missing 9/11 flag was found and has been returned to the WTC museum.

Despite 15 years having passed, there's still a human toll - both in mental and physical health terms. Many throughout the NYC metro area suffer from the mental toll of 9/11, both those who lost loved ones and those who watched the towers fall first-hand (simply by looking out the window as opposed to seeing it on tv) and could smell the fires for weeks thereafter. First responders are still dying from the exposure to the chemicals in the air, and the Zadroga Act was finally made permanent after far too long a delay by Congress.

On Friday September 9, there's a memorial procession by the NYPD's Emerald Society through Lower Manhattan to commemorate and celebrate the lives of those law enforcement members who died.

Construction at the site doesn't domination the front pages of local papers as it used to, as construction is nearing the end on several portions of the site. The entire Western side of Ground Zero is now essentially built out - between the Memorial, Museum, 1WTC, 4WTC, 7WTC, and the WTC Transit Hall.

The South Memorial Pool looking towards 4WTC. 
Should it surprise anyone that the companies involved in rebuilding have been caught up in shenanigans, including lying about using minority hires in erecting the steel at the site? Larry Davis, who won a $1 billion contract on the strength of partnering with minority owned businesses, was found guilty of lying about who was involved in erecting steel at the site. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He lied about employing minority and women-owned businesses, said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

The following is an update of construction around the WTC site:
  • 1WTC recaptured part of the skyline and is regarded as the tallest skyscraper in North America at 1,776 feet. 1WTC is now open for business, including the observation deck. The tower is about 2/3 occupied.
  • 2WTC is once again in limbo. Despite reports last year that the Norman Foster inspired design was scraped in favor of one by Bjarke Ingels to fulfill the needs of News Corp, the company has backed out as anchor tenant. If and when 2WTC is finally built, it will likely become the one of the most expensive skyscraper ever built (after 1WTC) because of the complexity of designing and building the skyscraper in the location chosen. It's being built atop key infrastructure for the entire site, including ventilation for the PATH system, and the cost will soar to nearly $4  billion. Without the anchor tenant, there's no timeline for when the tower will be completed.
  • 3WTC has nearly reached its final height as the concrete core was finally built out and the exterior curtain walls have started rising. The building is still scheduled to be open for business in 2018. It's anchor tenant is Group M, which took 700,000 sf of space in the 2 million sf building. Other tenants include Tiffany's and Hawksmoor Steakhouse.
  • 4WTC is in the process of being occupied. Tenants are already moving in, though it is not yet fully occupied. Currently, the building is about 80% leased.
  • Bringing up the rear is 5WTC, which has pretty much fallen off the radar since the site of the former Deutsche Bank building was finally razed. There are no plans for what to do with that site, and it may continue to lie fallow. Frankly, the Port Authority should sell the site and let a private developer build out the site - whether as office space (not likely), or as a combination of hotel and residential space, which makes more business sense given the spate of these combination towers being built around the City, including at the former Moody's site a few blocks north at 30 Park Place, which also happens to be being built by Silverstein Properties.
  • The WTC Transit Hub is finally open but it cost more than $4 billion. That's nearly $2 billion over the original budget estimate, and the costs associated with this has sapped the Port Authority's ability to build new infrastructure in the region, which is its core mission. Instead, the agency has poured billions into a project that doesn't add any cross-river capacity. It's a glorified high-end shopping mall that's struggling to find tenants even as the nearby Brookfield Center at the former World Financial Center has been reimagined as its own high-end mall. It handles substantially fewer commuters than any of the other transit hubs in NYC - Penn Station or Grand Central Terminal, and the cost isn't going to be recouped anytime soon.
  • Still lagging is the Vehicle Security Center that runs along the south side of the WTC and which was previously occupied by the former Deutsche Bank building. There's a new platform and entrance area being built for vehicles servicing the WTC complex, but it's years behind schedule and over budget (like everything else at the WTC). Even St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church is seeing progress - and that's even with Santiago Calatrava designing the new church (who designed the PATH hub). The elevated park atop the VSC is being constructed at the same time, but the delays have had a ripple effect in getting work done elsewhere on the site, including bringing in tenants to their new offices. Liberty Park, as it is called, has been open since this past June.
  • The WTC Performing Arts Center (PAC) has long been off the radar, but now that the PATH hub has opened, the temporary headhouse at Vesey and Greenwich can be demolished to make way for the performing arts center. Barbra Streisand has been tapped as chairperson of the PAC's board. The PAC will be named in honor of Ron Perelman, who donated $75 million towards the $250 million cost. It's expected to be open in 2020.

The PAC has produced a video showing the new design and how it relates to its surroundings:

The North Memorial Pool looking towards the PATH transit center as it appears before the PAC is built.

While the PATH hub will be visually interesting and definitely become a photographer's favorite, the problem with it is that the $4 billion spent adds not a single iota of additional cross-Hudson capacity to the PATH system at a time when the Amtrak Hudson River tunnels are in dire need of work due to Sandy damage, and there's no place to increase capacity until new tunnels are built. The Port Authority is fudging the figures so as to claim that 250,000 pedestrians will use the transit hub daily. That's not exactly true. 35,000 people use PATH daily in and out of the WTC. The rest are people who the Port Authority expects to visit the mall being built as part of the hub, and the people who are working in 1WTC and 4WTC as those spaces are filled out. 250,000 people are not going to be taking PATH daily; they're also throwing in commuters from the MTA system courtesy of the Dey Street connector. Even with proposals to extend PATH all the way to Newark Airport, the ridership figures do not justify the billions spent the way they were. Last December,  some New Jersey Democrats argued that PATH should scuttle the extension over the ongoing civil and criminal investigations  of United Airlines and dealings with the former Chairman of the Port Authority David Samson. Those investigations have already led to several airline officials being fired and Samson entered a guilty plea in June.

The price does provide for a lot of marble though. The Port Authority wanted a white elephant - and they got one - clad in marble. Well, that was before they lined the halls with LED signage - particularly the East-West Connector with Brookfield Place.

The underground spaces are once again a mall.

I know that may shock or surprise some people, but unless the entire site was going to be transformed into a memorial or museum, the space was going to be put to commercial use. That's what was there before the WTC was destroyed. It has again become a mall.

Much of the fault for the slow pace of rebuilding is the result of Port Authority actions and omissions to limit cost increases, especially when it comes to the transit hub and the delays in building led to still more costs incurred. All of these costs add up, and they've sapped the Port Authority's ability to do other critical infrastructure work elsewhere in the region, like building the Gateway Tunnel or additional PATH service or cross-harbor tunnels - expanding transit options while the WTC complex continues to be rebuilt at a near glacial pace. That pace is also the result of the acts by governors in both New York and New Jersey to contain costs. Special ire should be directed at Gov. George Pataki whose interference in the design plans in the early years after the attacks added years and billions in costs to the rebuilding process.

1WTC shrouded in breaking clouds. Note that scaffold on the south side.
The Port Authority is considering selling 1WTC, though that's a parallel to the situation immediately before 9/11. Back in 2000, the Port Authority entered in to a 99 year lease with Silverstein Properties for the WTC complex. The deal was still being finalized with the insurance on the site when the attacks occurred. Now, the Port Authority is trying to get rid of its real estate portfolio. One has to wonder who'd consider buying it given the history of the site: namely being the target of two successful terror attacks. 1WTC remains nearly 30% vacant.

However, beyond the WTC complex, Lower Manhattan has remade itself as a residential district as much as a financial and business one. The population in Lower Manhattan has doubled since 2001, which reflects the resilience of the neighborhood.

The rest of the skyline has changed greatly too. While there was a lot of discussion about how NYC might not see supertall skyscrapers built after the attacks, it turns out those discussions fell on deaf ears and developers have gone supertall in a big way. NYC has now seen construction of some of the tallest buildings in the Western Hemisphere in the past decade, and many more are on drawing boards.

Despite all the new construction, even at the WTC complex, the skyline will never be the same. Neither will our hearts, which are heavy with the loss and supreme sacrifices made on 9/11 by the rescue personnel who bravely rushed up the towers even as people were racing to get out of the towers or gasping as people were forced to jump to their deaths to avoid being burned alive in the fires that racked the towers.

I remember.

Last year, Century21 Department store wrapped their building across from Ground Zero with a full size mural. It's as appropriate then as today.

What the Century21 wrap will look like when done.
We remember.

Yellow roses adorn the names of those who served in the military and died on 9/11 as part of Veterans' Day remembrances.

The Tribute in Light

The view of Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island 9/11 Memorial at St. George.
Looking across the Hudson River from Hoboken.

For my prior year recollections and postings, see September 11, 2015September 11, 2014September 11, 2013September 11, 201210 Years Later,  September 11, 2010September 11, 2009,  September 11, 2008September 11, 2007September 11, 2006, and September 11, 2005.

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