Fifteen years after the Twin Towers fell, the people of lower Manhattan are thriving — carrying on even as they acknowledge they live and work in the shadow of the most deadly terrorist attacks on American soil.
Among them are a community board member who kept living in the area near Ground Zero after 9/11 when others fled; a man who owns a bar where first responders go to grieve and a sketch artist who survived two attacks in lower Manhattan and who goes to courtrooms to capture the images of terrorists.
These are their stories.
Catherine McVay Hughes remembers the days in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 when she pushed a dolly of air purifiers from Canal Street to her apartment on Liberty and Broadway.
Hughes, Community Board 1 member and former chairwoman, would have to change the 6-month-renewal air filters every week because of the dust that permeated the air after the attacks.
“I’m glad it’s in the filters and not in my lungs,” Hughes said of the toxic dust she was trying to keep away from her two small children at the time, when other families left a neighborhood in ruins because of poor air quality.
Her family was lucky. She was in Brooklyn at her child’s school that morning and her husband’s scheduled meeting at the Windows of the World restaurant was canceled.
After the attacks, Hughes and her family decided to stay.
“Lower Manhattan took a hit for the rest of the nation,” she said. “The fires [on the pile] were up for months,” while the public was being told the air quality was safe, she said, recalling how community leaders fought for residents to receive vouchers to buy air purifiers. Residents were also compensated for the private cleanup crews that came in to sponge up dust and debris that steeped into closed apartment windows and doors.
She says much has changed since then. Lower Manhattan today is abuzz with thousands of new office workers, residents and tourists who wander among gardens of flowers and trees, high-end designer stores and crowded restaurants.
Fifteen years after Sept. 11, the tip of Manhattan in New York Harbor is experiencing a renaissance of growth around the National September 11th Memorial and Museum; and a $4 billion transportation retail hub that features the Oculus — a white ribbed winged sculpture that stretches into the sky.
“We are back where we were before 9/11,” said Hughes, who represented residents and weighed in on hundreds of meetings with city, state and federal agencies including commercial giants who have participated in the recovery effort in lower Manhattan. “There were tense moments along the way . . . a list of complexities at many levels where there were many stakeholders,’’ said Hughes, who had to strike a balance between the needs of residents and the national demand to bring back the area as a symbol of rebirth.
The bedrock where the glass and steel One World Trade Center fortress anchors to the New Jersey PATH train and the MTA Fulton station is today the fourth-largest commercial zone after midtown Manhattan, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
“The city’s skyline has been restored,’’ said Hughes from inside Brookfield Place, formerly the World Financial Center, where its palm tree courtyard echoes life before the attacks.
On 9/11, there were 20,000 people living around the World Trade Center. Today there are 70,000, she said. “New people, new energy. We are back with 320,000 workers, with 14 million tourists on a plot of 1.44 square miles,’’ said Hughes with a smile.
There is more work to be done. “We need a traffic survey and [to] preserve our open space and ballfields for our families.’’
Still, Hughes is happy that she is able to get back to day-to-day community affairs such as advocating new building infrastructure to keep lower Manhattan from flooding during storm surges like those created by superstorm Sandy.
“I feel so blessed,’’ said Hughes, recalling how her family survived that terrible day. “The least I could do is be here and pay it forward.”
Courtroom artist Elizabeth Williams said she was inside the Winter Garden across West Street with her son when the ground quaked beneath them in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
A month later she sat across from the man charged with the bombing, drawing his likeness in a Manhattan federal courtroom during his arraignment. “He was so mad and had a defiant stance with his arm against his side,” she recalled recently. “It was my job to make that likeness,” she said.
Mohammed Salameh was the first Islamic extremist charged in the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, where a truck packed with explosives was detonated, ripping a crater several floors inside the garage. The bombing killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Salameh was sentenced to 240 years.
Then, on Sept. 11, 2001 her husband and 5-year-old daughter witnessed the first plane crash into the north tower after it torpedoed over their heads as they stood outside their neighborhood school — a trauma that haunted her daughter, who is now 20.
Williams and her family were evacuated from their lower Manhattan apartment. Her husband and her daughter fled 60 blocks uptown to get a train to Queens, where the family was reunited. “I think she saw jumpers that day,” said Williams, who said the family does not discuss the attacks.
Back in the courtroom, Williams drew the likeness of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulamain Abu Ghayth who was charged with conspiring to kill U.S. nationals after he was seen on a video with bin Laden celebrating the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I remember him looking at the prosecutor, staring him down. You never see that in a courtroom,’’ said Williams.
In 2010, Williams would have to study the face of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad who tried to detonate a car bomb in the crossroads of the world. On that day, he was sentenced to life without parole. The Pakistani-born U.S. citizen pointed his finger at Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, proclaiming: “Brace yourselves because the war with Muslims has just begun . . .’’
“He was pointing his finger at the judge and I was going to draw that. It made the cover of The New York Times,” Williams said.
“It used to bother me,’’ she said of seeing accused terrorists in the courtroom. “I was younger then and now I have become more distant,’’ said Williams as she sat inside a coffee shop next to the 1010 firehouse that once faced the World Trade Center.
Living and working where memories from the 1993 bombing and the 9/11 attacks always linger, Williams has adopted a “new normal,” she said. “There are a lot tourists and construction sites to navigate but I love living here. It is a delight to walk through here. It’s nice to have more residents living down here. I pray that we are safe.”
Each morning, Mike Keane treks from Edison, New Jersey, to open O’Hara’s, his restaurant next to the World Trade Center.
Keane’s friendly disposition has turned this pre-9/11 Wall Street watering hole into a place of solace for first responders and 9/11 families. They go to O’Hara’s on the Sept. 11 anniversaries to be among people to whom they do not have to explain their grief.
“It just turned out that way,” said Keane recently as he scrubbed the sink behind the bar, where he has worked for 30 years.
Hundreds of first responders come from across the nation and globe to O’Hara’s to give Keane their department logo patches which he then lets them affix to the walls with a staple gun he keeps behind the bar. “I don’t know how many there are,” he said of the neatly aligned rows of patches that cover all the restaurant’s walls.
Through word of mouth, O’Hara’s has also become a destination for tourists who want to hear Keane recount his memories of 9/11. “The tourists want to talk about it and I don’t mind because they just want to pay their respects,” he said, adding that they start the conversation by saying: “‘Sorry to ask. Will you tell us your experience?’’’
Then there are others who ask something like “‘Is the museum worth going to?’ I have to bite my tongue because I want to say this isn’t Disney. This is a place that is noteworthy — a place that is not supposed to amuse you.”
And then there is “the book,’’ a scrapbook of photos and notes that tell the story of the Twin Towers’ collapse — a morning in which daylight turned to night when a wave of ash and debris covered the tip of lower Manhattan.
Keane was inside his bar getting ready for his customers when the first plane struck. “I was on the phone when the lights dimmed. The commodity traders started coming in,” Keane said, recalling that his customers thought there was a glitch in the electrical system and came in for a break.
A small television behind the bar reported an incident at the north tower. “We couldn’t see what was happening from this side.” And then the second plane hit. “We knew it wasn’t an accident. We went to the roof and papers were burning all over the place.” He and the bar patrons put out the fires and then evacuated.
Keane headed to Broadway, to his father’s office, when he was overwhelmed by grey ash and debris as the Twin Towers started to fall. He ran into a building for refuge. “I don’t remember what building it was.’’
This time of year Keane, 53, said: “You just start to think about everything that happened that day and then you start thinking about being here everyday since then and it just doesn’t seem like 15 years. It’s still very fresh.”
Doting over her newborn daughter Alice, Elizabeth Goody, 35, gushes with optimism and gratitude that she is starting her family in North Battery Park City — a neighborhood that barely existed 15 years ago when the World Trade Center was destroyed.
Before 9/11, mothers and strollers were an anomaly among the finance office workers in suits and high heels. After the attacks, haunting photos were published showing empty strollers on the Hudson River esplanade left behind by parents who fled with their children to board waiting ferries that transported them to safety in New Jersey.
Today, as the number of families living in the area has grown, there are “stroller parades’’ that maneuver along the riverside esplanade in Battery Park City and sidewalks of TriBeCa — the next generation of lower Manhattan residents, said Goody.
It gives Goody a sense of belonging, she said.
Goody was 20 years old and an undergraduate attending college in her native Vermont on 9/11. She came to New York to attend law school in 2005. “9/11 for me is always about the rebuilding — waiting for this space and now we are lucky to have this space,” she said.
The young mother remembers her walks over the Vesey Street pedestrian bridge that crossed West Street and the construction site of One World Trade Center that was a daily reminder of the devastation for those who had to flee for their lives that day.
“It was a big hole in the ground,’’ she said, not wanting to dwell on those days but instead return to the present. “How lucky are we now? It’s important to take care of this neighborhood and our neighbors and to keep this place safe and make it better,’’ said Goody, who is a Community Board 1 member, a board that represents resident concerns to government agencies.
Despite the construction, she said the neighborhood is “beautiful and picturesque,’’ with its waterfront parks and marinas. Goody, who grew up in Burlington and likes the small-town life, is also “a creature of comfort’’ and enjoys the post 9/11 life in Battery Park City with its several hundred new restaurants and retail stores.
“Everything is first rate,’’ said Goody, who married her husband at Trinity Church, and gave birth at the nearby new birthing center at the NewYork-Presbyterian/Lower Manhattan Hospital — an expanding hospital.
“This is my life,’’ she said. “I feel safe. On weekends, we don’t have to leave. We live in a park,’’ she said citing the neighborhood’s open green lawns and benches that sit beside the Hudson River.
“I look at the Trade Center and . . . [9/11] runs through my head and then I feel lucky that it is another peaceful beautiful day.”