Nearly 10 years to the day, hundreds gathered on the northeast waterfront of Liberty State Park in Jersey City Saturday afternoon to pause for a moment of silence in remembrance of the 2,977 people who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That moment was part of an hour-long ceremony to unveil a new memorial titled “Empty Sky” that names the 746 New Jersey residents killed on that clear September morning.
Unlike the hours and days following 9/11 when the New York City airways were eerily quiet and the Twin Towers in pieces, the sky above lower Manhattan on Saturday seemed anything but empty. Helicopters buzzed to and fro beneath marbled gray clouds. The Freedom Tower at One World Trade Center, still under construction, soared above the New York City skyline. And, miles away, the snarl of distant airliners offered a queasy reminder of the events 10 years past.
But about 50 steps away along a brick path, in front of two crossed beams from the World Trade Center, the long canyon of New Jersey’s new 9/11 memorial forces visitors to confront the wrenching reality of all that was lost. Two concrete towers, 30 feet tall, 10 inches thick, and 208-feet long, push through a low hill toward the waterfront. The canyon between, lined with stainless steel and engraved with the names of the 746 New Jersey residents killed in the attacks, seems to narrow as it points toward the void where the 110-story Twin Towers, built of steel and concrete, once stood.
Seven years in the making, the structure, designed by architects Jessica Jamroz and Frederic Schwarz, cost about $12 million to build, with $7 million coming from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, $4 million from the state and $1 million from the New Jersey Building Authority. About 11 million people pass through Liberty State Park every year, according to the New Jersey Park Service, most often for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. With the completion of the memorial, however, more visitors are expected.
Saturday’s ceremony, which, perhaps fittingly, was delayed by half-an-hour due to heavy traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, included remarks from Gov. Chris Christie, U.S. Senators Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez and members of the 9/11 Memorial Foundation. Port Authority Chairman David Samson served as the host, and delivered the opening remarks.
With 746 New Jersey flags, planted on the low hill in rows, serving as his backdrop, Samson said that the Port Authority has had a “moral obligation” to fund the construction of the New Jersey memorial, which he described as “beautiful in its simplicity, but powerful in its message.”
“It is another step in the healing process of the pain inflicted 10 years ago, and it is a commitment to the future of the restoration of our faith and a demonstration of our strength, and you can see that commitment rising just across the river,” he said. “Every day, 3,400 workers are rebuilding not just the building, but the economic engine that will drive our region’s economy.”
Soldiers in green and brown camouflage listened from the first five rows of the audience. Behind them sat about 300 others – victims’ friends and families, carrying the photos of loved ones; police officers, firefighters and EMTs wearing dress uniforms, their badges and brass buttons glinting in the sunlight; residents from as far as Cumberland County; and numerous politicians and town administrators, including U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, Scotch Plains Township Manager Christopher Marion and Scotch Plains Councilman Bo Vastine. All reflected on how quickly 10 years have passed.
“It’s important to come back and remember,” Marion said before the ceremony. At the time of the attacks, he was working as the municipal manager for Marlboro. “We were making sure kids got home from school whose parents were lost. I spoke with the police chief, the fire chief – nobody really knew what to do.”
As he spoke, emotion cracked in his voice. Vastine, stepping in, recalled helping his wife move from her apartment on East 13th Street in New York City one year after the attacks, and still finding dust from the World Trade Center in the corners of rooms and bookshelves. “On this anniversary, I think it’s important to remember. If we ever forget, then we’re doomed to repeat mistakes,” he said.
Kearny Fire Chief Steve Dyl stood nearby. He wore a black armband, embroidered with “FDNY 9-11-2011,” around the left arm of his blue dress uniform. “The skyline looks empty. There’s something missing,” Dyl said, looking toward the skyline and a flotilla of police boats patrolling the waterfront. “I watched the towers go up while I was going to grade school.”
When the towers fell in 2001, he was assigned to a firehouse in the same district as the school, within site of the Lower Manhattan skyline. “I don’t know if ironic is the right word, but you see the birth and the death of the towers from the same place.” He paused. “Coming here, this was the least I could do.”
Joe Sanchelli, of Whippany, a painter with John O’Hara Construction, stood perhaps a half mile from the site of the memorial 10 years ago. “I was outside the Newport Financial Center just over there, having coffee with some carpenter friends at about 8 that morning,” he said. “We were facing away from the city skyline, and we heard this explosion. We thought it was here in Jersey City, a beam falling down maybe. But someone in front of us pointed toward the city.” He spent the following Thursday, his 51st birthday, and Friday helping clearing debris from the pile.
Senators Lautenberg and Menendez, who took the podium after Samson, sought to strike notes of strength and resilience. “I say you have to continue, we have to continue with our lives, even though every day we are reminded that everything that happened on that day,” Lautenberg said. “We will be strong.”
Following a performance of the song, “American Anthem,” by singer Laurie Gayle Stephenson – a four-minute ode that ends with the refrain, “America, I gave my best to you” – Christie stepped to the podium. “Empty Sky,” he said, offers a site for communal remembrance and mourning, particularly for victims’ families and friends.
“Much of their suffering has been private — horribly private,” he said. “With us today, we can share in their grief, and serve through our presence and our words to help to ease their pain and lift their spirits.”
In introducing the moment of silence, Christie continued, ”The silence from the loved ones they’ve lost has lasted 10 years – 10 years, minute by minute, of the absence of their husband or wife, the absence of their mother or father, the absence of their brother or sister, of the unthinkable absence for a parent who had to bury a son or a daughter in the most unnatural act that any human being could have to endure. When we come and walk through this memorial and we see those names engraved on that wall, I hope that you understand and will reflect upon what those names mean, not just to us as Americans and as New Jerseyans, but what they mean to family members for whom that wall and that name will be a sacred and honored place.”
It was an address that left much of the audience in tears. Photographers and reporters standing on risers behind the crowd, often inure to emotional appeals while on assignment, were somber.
Bagpipes closed the moment of silence. A procession of 11 Port Authority bagpipers marched across the hill between the thicket of miniature flags, down the center aisle of the audience and past the memorial, the strains from their song of collective mourning fading as they marched into the distance. Four members of the New Jersey 9/11 Memorial Foundation – Rick Cahill, Faith Miller, Kathryn Graziosio and Maureen Gregory – then performed a reading, as about 10 family members of victims walked through the canyon of Empty Sky and lay white flowers atop the crossed steel beams.
“On these bold monument walls, all names are the same,” they read. “All are engraved with clean, sharp lines. They are represented equally, no one more prominent than another. This monument does not identify by gender, race or religion. Their common bond is that they were ours. And now they are gone. Here, their legacies remain as they do in our hearts, eternal.”
Afterward, victims’ families were invited to walk through the memorial, followed by the rest of the attendees.
“The ceremony was beautiful, the memorial is perfect,” said Joann Meehan, of Berkeley. She wore a large button with a photo of her daughter, Colleen Ann Barkow, who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and died in the attacks at age 26. “The names are large. It was very nice to be able to do a rubbing of her name. There was a lot of controversy about it being too big, that it would block the view. But it’s the perfect size. Coming here makes us feel so much better. The 9/11 families, just being here with them, they understand how I feel, and I understand how they feel.”
Inside the canyon, families paused before the names – both those they recognized, and those they did not. Most of the visitors were silent, some hung photos, others left flowers. Some smiled as they shared memories with family members or held white butcher paper against the engraved names, rubbing furiously with black crayon to record the names to paper.
Some simply stood outside the memorial’s dual towers, looking from the crest of the hill toward the skyline across the Hudson. Seen from afar, the visitors seem to stand as tall as the towers once did.
Jamroz, one of the two architects behind the memorial, stopped briefly after the ceremony to answer questions. “It’s a really emotional day. The 9/11 community is a really emotional group. I’m happy it’s gone up after seven years,” she said.
Asked which elements visitors should keep in mind when they come to see the memorial, she paused, then replied, “The State of New Jersey lost 746 people that day. The should bear in mind the sacrifice.”
Her eyes welling up, she excused herself and turned to find family and friends, who had traveled from Massachusetts to see her work.