By Ray O’Hanlon
The hardest thing to grasp at the end of it was the emptiness and silence.
Sound, the louder the better, had been emblematic of hope. But now there was simply nothing. In the great hole known as “the pit,” nothing stirred.
Except spirits and the echoes of spirit.
Spirits of the dead and the spirited effort of the living who had clawed at the rubble with more hope than expectation.
If this was closure, a supreme byword for our times, it had a hollow ring.
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Still, the city of New York had made the best of it. The official closing of Ground Zero last Thursday was nothing if not moving, poignant and, above all, needed.
This could not go on forever. Although it seemingly had. Eight months and 19 days is a long wake.
There were no speeches. None were needed. But there were sounds to pocket in the memory. Utterly compelling sounds.
At 10:29 a.m., the time that the second tower of the World Trade Center fell to the ground, a solitary fire bell was sounded. Four times, five tolls, the time honored signal that a firefighter had fallen.
All around the Trade Center site, people gathered in organized groups, family parties and straggling lines. Honor guards lined the ramp leading out of the pit.
On the blue-painted frontage of the raised viewing platform erected at the southern perimeter, two flags had been pinned. Only two. No prizes for guessing: the Stars and Stripes and the Irish tricolor.
The Sept. 11 attack on the Trade Center was, for sure, an attack on the world and its first city. But the Irish of New York seemed to take it as a particularly personal assault. No surprise, really, given the names of so many of the dead firefighters, cops and people working in the towers.
The bond business didn’t refer to Cantor Fitzgerald as the “Irish Mafia” for nothing.
Add to this the rescue workers and hard hats who came in the aftermath of the slaughter.
Again, so many Irish hands put to the heartrending task that would never quite amount to rescue.
And now, at the end of it all, a flag to show the world that the spirit of Ground Zero had drawn heavily on the better side of stubborn Irish grit and pride.
There were in fact two tricolors on view last Thursday. A second had been attached to a wire mesh fence on the east side of Ground Zero, a few feet from the steel girders in the shape of a cross that had become a focal point for prayer during the recovery effort.
The cross is on a high portion of ground overlooking the pit. A Mass Rock, out of place and historical context, but true to the tradition nevertheless.
The Irish flag in this corner of the 16-acre Ground Zero site was the one unfurled just before St. Patrick’s Day by members of Local 608 of the carpenters union, the “Irish local” which had lost members of its own on 9/11.
Below the cross and the flags, and under a warm early summer sky, the closure ceremony was short and precise, military in tone and bearing.
The fire bell was followed by orders to present arms.
An empty stretcher, draped in the American flag, was carried up the ramp. The drums of the NYPD, FDNY and Port Authority Emerald pipe bands beat out a slow marching time. The stretcher was placed in a fire department ambulance.
In a moment especially saturated with symbolism, the ambulance’s doors were then closed. They were closed on the more than 1,700 families whose murdered loved ones remain unfound, unidentified.
“Echo Taps” was played on two trumpets, one of the in the hands of police officer Edward Harrigan, an Irish cop in the town that invented Irish cops. Five police department helicopters flew overhead in V-formation.
V for victory, valiant and vulnerable.
Nobody present needed much reminding as to how vulnerable we all were on Sept. 11, 2001.
The ambulance led the way out of Ground Zero. It was followed by a truck bearing the last steel beam recovered from the foundations of the Trade Center.
This column of man-made strength had become a kind of totem for the recovery crews that had reached down to it after all the months of round-the-clock digging, clawing and pulling.
The beam had sadly familiar numbers scratched into it: 37, 23, 343.
Covered by black cloth, Old Glory and topped by a floral wreath, the beam was borne up West Street to the sound of pipers, in a combined Emerald ensemble, playing the standards of Irish musical defiance in the face of treachery and oppression: “The Minstrel Boy” “The Rising of the Moon.”
The pipers took the hearts of the crowds of people lining the street with them as they rolled into “America the Beautiful.”
An America snatched from 2,823 souls whose hearts had once beat in this place.
The funereal beam would be taken to a hangar at Kennedy Airport, ultimately at a faster clip than the pipers, or the riderless horse bringing up the rear of the line, could muster.
It may someday return to lower Manhattan to form part of a permanent memorial.
In the meantime, it’s the great hole in Manhattan’s southern end, the tear in its heart and soul, that will serve as the memory holder, the dream catcher.
At the end of the closure ceremony, the streets that were so long sealed were opened, the frozen zones were thawed out. People could walk into what had been the closed but so personal world of Ground Zero and stare into the great crater.
And it was now silent and empty, the trucks and earth moving machines on its floor so small to the eye that it seemed possible to reach down and pick them up.
Relatives of the dead, firefighters, cops and many others spent long minutes staring into the void that will someday be noisy again, but as a construction site.
It was time to say goodbye to Ground Zero and all its snuffed-out dreams.