Nine years later, the sharp edges of grief are somewhat blunted and the Ground Zero pile replaced by the frenetic activity of rebuilding.
Families will gather Saturday morning across the street from where their loved ones perished on Sept. 11, 2001. As they do every year, they will mark with silence the moments the towers fell. They will listen as 2,752 names are read.
Yet two blocks away, a roiling political battle that has gone international as the anniversary approached will continue to unfold Saturday, with competing sides rallying near the site of a proposed mosque and community center. Some will rail at the insult, they say, of placing a mosque so close to what they consider the hallowed ground where America lost so many people to terrorists. Others will protest with equal fervor that the mosque must be built there, in an America that stands on an unshakable principle of religious freedom. And 2,000 miles away, a Florida pastor may or may not make good on his pledge to burn a Quran to mark the anniversary.
Despite the political debate, many believe there is reason for hope on this ninth anniversary. After delays and disagreements, Freedom Tower is rising. Its 36-story steel skeleton will eventually grow to 106 stories and is set to open in 2013. The memorial at the site will open on the 10th anniversary, and the museum on Sept. 11, 2012. To honor that progress, construction workers, engineers and architects involved in the building of the memorial and museum will join family members in reading the names of the lost Saturday.
One of the thousands of construction workers who built the original South Tower recalled the majesty of the view from the 110th-floor observation deck as it rose. And while he mourns the buildings' destruction, he admires what is being rebuilt. "It sure looks beautiful what they're doing so far," said John Gunther, 89, who never thought he would outlive the Twin Towers.
Working on Twin Towers 'high point' for carpenter
IN the early 1970s, before the upper floors of the World Trade Center's South Tower were even finished, John Gunther of Seaford would go up to the roof deck above the 110th floor and with the wind streaming hard and fast around him, look down at the world.
"I'd stand there with the railing up to my waist," Gunther recalled this week, almost 40 years after he worked as a union carpenter on those upper floors. "It was quite a sight to stand there like that. It was a thrill."
So when he saw the television images of the collapsing towers nine years ago Saturday, he mourned not only the loss of life, but the landmark buildings where he labored and which he thought would outlive him - gone in an instant.
"Look at the Empire State Building, as old as it is, it's beautiful to look at," said Gunther, now 89. "I'd hoped the building I worked on would have been there even after the Empire State Building."
Gunther was among the thousands of men who worked on the World Trade Center site over the years. He installed hundreds of doors, frames and locks there. "You could say the doors were just a little part of the building, but it was a lot of work that I did . . . that was gone with the buildings," he said. "You would think that would last my lifetime and many years after that, but it didn't happen."
Nine years after the attacks, the new buildings at the site are finally emerging into the city skyline. For this year's remembrance ceremony Saturday, construction workers, engineers and architects laboring on the National September 11 Memorial and Museum will participate in the reading of the names of those who died in the attacks.
"It looks beautiful what they're doing so far," Gunther said, as the new 1 World Trade Center takes shape. "It sure looks like a very solid building to me, from what I can see on the television."
Gunther began working at the site before the French tightrope artist Philippe Petit performed his famous skywalk between the Twin Towers in 1974, and, while he's not sure of all the dates, he remembers well the work he did. His boss often called on him to troubleshoot: "He'd say, 'Jack, this isn't working right. Can you go up there and fix it?' " he recalled. "I had a lot of experience on a lot of different things. I was always able to improvise . . . and it would work out."
He proudly recalls how pleased everyone was when he devised a way that a door could withstand the wind blasts of the rooftop observation deck. Instead of a door that swung outward as called for in the plans, he fashioned a sliding door on tracks.
"The work that we did, we did it very carefully and did our very best," he said.
But Gunther gives special praise to the steelworkers who fearlessly risked their lives erecting the towers' frames. He worked comfortably inside, he said, although he had to conquer a fear of heights. He recalled his first day, walking onto a floor where a broken window let in "a tremendous amount of air blowing through. I was scared, and I wanted to close that door and walk out of the room. I did get more used to the height, but I never really got used to it totally."
One morning, however, Gunther brought a camera to work and had his picture taken at the roof's edge, the Statue of Liberty behind him. A ledge 20 feet below would have broken his fall, he said. The photo now sits in a place of prominence on a fireplace Gunther built, in the split-level decorated with his finely crafted wood carvings, stained glass, sculptures and prizewinning oil paintings, which he's created since adolescence.
Three years ago, his wife Ninon, 86, persuaded him to retire from his home improvement business. If she hadn't, he'd be working still, said his daughter, Ninon Riccio, 55, of Levittown, one of the couple's four children. But, she said, he often said the World Trade Center was a "high point."
"I remember that being kind of the happiest time of your life," she told her father this week. "It was a prestigious job."