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Historians Seek to Preserve Stairs That Helped Survivors of NYC 9/11 Attacks

As the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks draws near, one of the only remaining pieces of the World Trade Center in New York City is in danger of extinction. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports on the efforts to save a structure that preservationists claim saved lives on 9/11.

It might be said that the path of progress at the World Trade Center site runs right through a concrete staircase.

But for those who were witness to so much death, so much trauma here almost five years ago they are more than just stairs.

Historic preservationist Ken Lustbader says they mean so much more. "The staircases embody an emotional will of people who survived using it, and also the rescue efforts and recovery efforts of those people who were there on site for a full year recovering and cleaning up."

They've been called the Stairs to Survival, and are one of the few remnants that are intact and above ground on the site of the original World Trade Center complex.

"The Sphere", artist Fritz' Koening's monument to peace that once stood at the center of the plaza, was damaged but also survived the 9/11 attacks. It is now off site, on display since March of 2002 at the tip of Lower Manhattan in Battery Park.

The Sphere, and the Stairs… a monument and a means of escape. The Sphere is already a protected remnant of the World Trade Center. Preservationists hope the same will happen for these stairs along Vesey.

Lustbader credits the sturdy construction of the staircase -- and the fact that it connected to the subway system below -- for its survival.

Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman says the answer is far more elusive. "As to why these stairs survived, I don't think we'll ever know the answer to that. There were certain things that happened on September 11th that defy logic. I mean every other above ground part of the trade center crumbled that day. But somehow these stairs are still here."

Speaking from an historical perspective, Lustbader adds, "Really, there are a lot of historical elements there. There are the box beam columns of the original two towers that if you look down to actually find the shape of the towers there's the actual bedrock of those twin towers that are there, the slurry wall, and again, the staircase, but the staircase is the only above ground element but the staircase hasn't been dealt with yet because construction has been put off for a number of years."

What was "put off" is now back on track, for the most part. In March, developer Larry Silverstein, who holds the lease to the property, reached an agreement with the owner of the site, the Port Authority, to move forward with construction.

As a grand opening ceremony welcomes the first rebuilt World Trade Center structure, building 7, into the Lower Manhattan skyline, there's an urgent push by preservationists to save this visible reminder of what once stood on these six point four hectares of land.

In early May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the stairs on its annual list of America's 11 most endangered places. It brought the issue to the public's attention, and further into the debate about how to remember the victims of 9/11.

"It could be a real touchstone to people and to generations of kids who are going to come to the site to really get a sense that this is a real authentic piece of the Trade Center right before their eyes. It is not a recreation; it is not going to be underground like other elements that are going to be a museum. This is going to be really in the place where people had the attacks affect them and people were there." Lustbader said.

Of the placement possibilities, Coleman says "There might be a possibility of preserving it here in place, there might be a possibility of moving it or a portion of the staircase to another location on the site when it is fully built. But I think we're going to look through every option and try to find every way that we can to preserve either part or all of the particular staircase here."

Keeping the stairs in place would not affect plans to build the cornerstone of the redevelopment effort and its largest structure, the Freedom Tower.

It would impact construction of tower number two - which Silverstein has an exclusive agreement to develop. Ultimately, the fate of the stairs rests with the Port Authority.

Preservationists hope the stairs might share the same fate as another landmark at Ground Zero.

Two steel beams, in the shape of a cross, also were left standing after the twin towers collapsed.

The World Trade Center Memorial Foundation has committed itself to making that cross a permanent exhibit at the site. As for "The Sphere", its resting place in Battery Park is also temporary. There are no final plans yet for its permanent home.