NEW YORK – The first sight for visitors when they arrive at Ground Zero is the sight of scorch marks on buildings, which still bear the scars from the devastation of last year’s terrorist attacks but are adorned with American flags and messages of support for the victims and rescue workers.
As visitors travel down the quarter-mile-long walkway next to Ground Zero the rumble of New York City’s busses, car horns and voices dissolve into silence.
Some visitors privately weep as they look at the vacant hole, others wrap their fingers around the chain-linked fence that separates them from the final resting place of thousands.
Flags, toys, firefighter memorabilia, flowers, T-shirts and many other personal tributes are entwined in the yards of fences surrounding the site.
Thousands of people from across the world visited the site yesterday as a way to feel like they were experiencing and contributing to history.
“I gave my pint of blood, I donated my $20, but I just needed to be here. It was something I couldn’t miss,” said Chicago resident Pete Petropoulos.
Visiting Ground Zero has brought out many of the initial emotions people felt one year ago.
“Coming back here kind of brings back the pain and the anger,” said Stalin Flores, a 27-year-old from Boston.
But Flores said the terrorist attacks also brought out a sense of pride for his adopted country.
“I came here when I was 18 years old with no idea what it meant to be a citizen of any country,” the Honduran native said.
“I had never ever been so proud to be an American.”
On Sept. 11 last year, Rummel Flores, Stalin’s 24-year-old brother, was in a training exercise for the U.S. Marines when it was interrupted.
Those with family in New York, Washington and Massachusetts were given cell phones to call their families.
“They told us we might be heading to war,” he said. He was transferred shortly after Sept. 11 to Camp Wilson in Twenty-nine Palms, Calif., and that was when he started feeling apprehensive.
“I saw a lot of Marines that had all their bags packed like they were going to war. I called my mom and told her I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
On Dec. 1, Rummel left with about 1,000 other Marines to patrol the waters around Afghanistan.
“We were ready to do whatever we could to protect our country,” he said.
His return to the site of the World Trade Center was marked by a memory of going up the towers the last time he was in New York. “I kind of expected to go up there again,” he said.
Some of those most closely touched by the attacks have been unable to return to the site.
Josiah Sliverstein, who attended high school close to the World Trade Center site and whose father was working in the Chrysler Building on the day of the attack in 1993 and the attacks on Sept. 11, has not been able visit the site after Sept. 11.
“It would just be like seeing my high school memories gone,” Silverstein said.
“There are times when it strikes me though. I remember seeing the skyline and seeing the empty space.”
He added that he has driven and walked within a few blocks of Ground Zero over the past months, but was never able to force himself to see the actual site.
Some visitors said seeing the site in person had a greater impact on them than when they watched the images on TV or saw camera shots of the site.
“Seeing it on TV is only one thing,” said Anthony Merck, who was visiting the city from Utah.
“I remember watching the buildings fall on TV, but I don’t think any of that hit me as much as seeing that open space.”
Looking toward Ground Zero, Stalin Rummel said, “It means the end of innocence.”
“It means we are no longer as invincible as we thought we were.”
Stalin said he pays more attention to international affairs today than he used to. Ground Zero and the surrounding areas also draw people from many different nationalities.
At St. Paul’s Chapel, across the street from Ground Zero, flags with messages scrawled on them express support from many corners of the world, including Norway, Great Britain, Poland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the University of Michigan.
Inside a maize block “M” are the words “1,800 miles 18 days/Ride to remember 8-9-02.”
At the tip of the M, the name “Meredith” is written in ballpoint pen.