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For Relatives of Sept. 11 Victims, the WTC Site is Sacred Ground - 2002-07-02

The debate over what will happen to the site of the former World Trade Center has been simmering for months. But now, with the recovery and clean-up effort officially over and the first public hearings already taking place, the time for decisions is drawing near. James Donahower attended a meeting of those who lost loved ones in the attacks, and reports they are determined to play a major role in making those decisions.

Although the 6.5-hectare site where the twin towers once stood now looks like any other construction site, carefully manicured to receive new structures, it is anything but "normal." Three thousand people were murdered there. It is both a crime scene and a cemetery.

Civic groups, local residents, business leaders, commercial realtors, as well as city, state, and federal politicians are all clamoring to determine the future of the site. But many of those who lost family and friends on September 11 say they're concerned that determination is being made too hastily.

Monika Iken, who lost her husband Michael in the attacks, said "The world is watching every move we make." She has founded "September's Mission," an organization dedicated to making sure the voices of those who have suffered similar losses are heard.

"I know that people want to move on, and get on with their lives, and I understand that concept," she explained. "However, I don't think that we're ready to just 'move on', I don't think it's going to happen that quickly. Every day for me is September 11."

Ms. Iken often invokes the family members' "right to heal," and she says fulfilling this right is made especially difficult by the fact that so few remains have been recovered. After 9 months, workers still could find no trace of almost two-thirds of the people who died in the attacks.

Gila Barzvi counts her son, Guy, who worked in the World Trade Center, among that number. She stressed that, for her, Ground Zero is, first and foremost, a burial ground.

"My son was not recovered," she said. "And the only place that I can go to be with him, share my tears and my pain, is the 16 acres of the World Trade Center. These are hallowed grounds and sacred."

Ms. Barzvi advocates making the entire area a memorial, and she is not alone. Even people who have recovered all or some remains are adamant about the sacred nature of Ground Zero. Debra Calandrillo, who lost her husband of 21 years in the attacks, said, "I think of my husband as at a crime scene when they have an outline of the body… and I've gotten calls from the medical examiner about "finds" they have of his remains. I think of that outline, and of how parts of it are being filled in. But most of him is still on that site, and most of him will remain on that site. I will always consider that his cemetery."

Many victims' family members are also in agreement about what the memorial should look like. They desire trees, nature, and open space. The words "peace" and "tranquility" recur frequently when they describe their visions.

Some go further. Debra Calandrillo would like to see a memorial wall bearing pictures and short biographies of each victim, calling to mind the spontaneous collections of photos that appeared all over the city immediately after the attacks.

"Having the photo at the memorial would capture what went on in the days following September 11," she said. "That feel of seeing the person who is gone, seeing them in a happy moment. With their children, with their parents, with their family, on vacation, people living their lives. They got up, they went to work, and they never came home again."

But others think that it is equally important for the area to thrive again. On September 11, Christy Ferer lost her husband, Neil Levin, the head of the government agency that owned the trade center complex. Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed her the special liaison between City Hall and the families of the Trade Center dead.

"Many of the people I've talked to that have lost someone down there, really feel firmly that they want life back there," said Ms. Ferer. "So, any way that we can be helpful in reviving that area, why not? We can't show any sign of defeat, and let that be an area where nothing comes back. No life, no business, no residents. So we're doing whatever we can to restore life down there. It's about renewal."

Committees and concerned groups meet on an almost daily basis throughout Manhattan to discuss and debate the future of Ground Zero. A final plan is to be submitted on December first by a city and state agency overseeing the redevelopment of lower Manhattan.