It was March 11, 2002, six months to the day after the towers fell and the world as we knew it ended.
I was having dinner alone in one of a million Italian restaurants in Manhattan, this one in a block nicknamed “Little Brazil,” West 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues.
It was a slow night at the restaurant, so I was able to get a south-facing window table, from which I could easily see darkness fall as workers, white collar and blue, strode home and taxis rushed by.
I had gone ahead to New York a couple of days early for a college journalism convention — I was adviser to the student newspaper at ISU then — because I wanted to visit ground zero alone.
As I ate, images of newspaper photos and television tape replayed in my mind’s eye. I knew I would see, the next day, hallowed ground where innocents had died, for the offense of having gone to work, and where emergency responders rushed to save others’ lives and lost their own.
My thoughts were no more special than anyone else’s. No one could conceive the toll that 9/11 had taken on the dead, the families, the nation and the world. No one could make sense of it.
As I finished dinner, I saw the light, both literally and figuratively.
Into a New York City sky, there shone from the area near ground zero two intensely bright bluish-white vertical beams, as far up as the eye could see. They rose among and above the city’s skyscrapers.
I had read — but had forgotten — that this so-called “Tribute in Light” was to take place for the first time that night. Its design was to simulate, six months later, the two World Trade Center towers that had fallen — and to honor the 3,000 or so who died that beautiful-then-awful September Tuesday.
Eighty-eight 7,000-watt xenon searchlights had been arranged in two sets. Forty-four searchlights merged into one beam, 44 into the second.
At what I now know was 6:55 p.m., the vertical beams, echoing the shape of the towers, are said to have reached four miles into the sky in what the sponsors, the Municipal Art Society of New York, calls the "strongest shaft of light ever projected from earth into night sky."
Tribute in Light has now been produced annually on Sept. 11 by the Municipal Art Society of New York and is scheduled again for Sunday.
That was the literal light.
Then came the figurative light.
It arrived in a realization — as two men at the bar of the Italian restaurant conversed in Spanish, in the block called Little Brazil, across the street from a Jewish deli, near an Argentinian restaurant, up the block from a Japanese restaurant, in the same block as an Indian restaurant.
The realization was that while the extremist hijackers and the attack’s masterminds had struck at the heart of America’s commerce, government, military and citizenry, they in fact had attacked the whole world, not America only.
That’s because New York City is made up of the whole world, and has been forever. The wonder of New York City is its mix of cultures, its coexistence, its overall tolerance of differences, its celebration of heritages. Those factors were represented among those who died in the twin towers — dozens of nationalities and all religions, including Islam.
New York is, more than any other, a city molded over the centuries from immigrants who entered the United States from the sea, through a site at Battery Park, just a few blocks south of ground zero. Out in the harbor, the Statue of Liberty has, from 1886 on, lifted its right arm to the heavens — holding a light.
The realization also was that the attackers could not, ultimately, win despite the sense of defeat many of us felt that day. They could not extinguish the light. They could not defeat New York City, America or the world.
Ground zero was, then as now, a somber location, a place where visitors come respectfully to experience the site where a crime against the world was committed and to pay homage to its victims.
In March 2002, remains were still being recovered and the scene was still being excavated. To see down into the abyss, one had to climb a wooden observation deck and, for two minutes, could take photos and reflect. At the back of the line, visitors signed a U.S. flag on the order of 10 feet tall and 30 feet wide. Just a few yards from the observation line, pieces of a window blind hung from bare branches of trees that sheltered a cemetery. One could but only believe they came from an office in one of the towers.
Just on the edge of ground zero, there glowed a third kind of light, a spiritual light, another light that could not be extinguished. It came from the candles burning inside St. Paul’s Chapel, many commemorating 9/11’s dead.
The towers fell within a few hundred yards of St. Paul’s. Somehow, providentially or coincidentally, yours to decide as you choose, the church survived without even a broken window, as one account says.
St. Paul’s, New York’s oldest public building in continuous use since it opened in 1766, is where George Washington went to pray after being inaugurated as president in 1789 when New York was the nation’s first capital. A pew Washington used remains in the church under a painting of the Great Seal of the United States.
For eight months after 9/11, hundreds of volunteers worked 12-hour shifts inside that church, as it transformed into a relief center for recovery workers: firefighters, construction workers, police and others. Workers ate, slept, got therapy and counsel, and prayed at that remarkable, resilient, indestructible church.
Now, St. Paul’s has returned to its main function as a church that is both ornate and simple, historic and contemporary. In addition to religious trappings, it displays some of the memorabilia that had covered every inch of a six-foot metal fence that encloses all four sides of the church and its cemetery — the same cemetery where those window blinds hung from a tree limb.
When I visited that church again a month ago, the candles were still burning.
Another light that hateful zealots could not put out.
• You can visit St. Paul’s Chapel at 209 Broadway, between Fulton and Vesey streets, in lower Manhattan. Online: www.trinitywallstreet.org/congregation/spc.
• The Tribute in Light’s future is unsure because of funding. To help keep the Tribute in Light alive, text TRIBUTE to 20222 and a one-time $10 donation will be added to your phone bill. You’ll get an instant automated text response asking you to verify your intent.
Merv Hendricks is a copy editor and page designer for the Tribune-Star, and also writes
editorials and features. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.