Numerically, the distance seems so short — from zero to one.
Then again, it has taken a lot to go from the chaos and carnage that was Ground Zero to the gleaming, rising tower called 1 World Trade Center.
On a visit to New York last weekend, I stood again at the 9/11 site in Lower Manhattan, gazing into a sunlit sky reminiscent of that awful September morning. But instead of angry destruction, the world sees fearless construction — and the tower surpassing the Empire State Building in height.
Crowds still gather. Some people stand in lines to see the two reflective pools, each memorial to the dead nearly an acre in size, in the original footprints of the north and south towers.
I couldn’t help thinking of all the footprints left in the dust when survivors escaped after the terrorist attack killed nearly 3,000. On that day, when public transportation shut down, almost everyone traveled on foot.
The irony is that, yes, New York is America’s greatest “walking city,” but no one wanted to be walking and running like that, in fear for their lives.
I love walking around “the city,” as people there call Manhattan, and in our five-day extended weekend visit to our daughter and her fiance, we walked and walked and walked. Rode subways, too, but the canyons of concrete, steel and glass are best enjoyed at street level.
WalkScore.com recently ranked the country’s 50 largest cities for walkability, and New York was first, followed by San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. Omaha rated a respectable 21st, with Wichita 38th and Kansas City 43rd.
Figuratively, America continues to put one foot in front of the other. Do we sometimes take a couple of steps backward before one forward? Sure.
But we keep going. Because at street level, it’s not so much skyscrapers that we see — it’s people. And despite our differences of politics, religion, race and outlook, we are all hanging on to the same spinning planet.
Omaha has so many ties to New York, including former Omahans who live there and former New Yorkers who live here. Jason Quinn returned to Omaha four years after surviving 9/11.
He made it out on foot, walking down 36 flights in the south tower. He figures it took about 14 minutes; a couple of minutes later, the second plane hit his building. Two acquaintances of his perished.
“At first, it wasn’t absolute chaos,” he recalled Wednesday. “The buildings were burning. People on the ground were watching.”
But then some poor souls jumped from the upper floors rather than be burned alive. Jason thought the twin towers might bend and topple lengthwise, so he began running — and heard the explosion and felt the reverberation of the south tower falling.
The dust cloud followed, engulfing many.
In the aftermath, Jason’s company found new quarters and he stayed. To leave right away, he said, would have meant the terrorists won.
Despite his love of New York’s diversity, vitality and night life, he said, he knew that his hometown was making big improvements. In 2005 he joined Quinn Insurance Inc., which was founded by his grandfather.
At a Memorial Park concert, he met Theresa Lehn. They married and now have two children. Life is good.
This week marked the first anniversary of the Navy SEALs’ killing of Osama bin Laden. Jason said he not only was elated at bin Laden’s death, but also felt proud that the American military had pulled off such a daring raid.
I told him I felt patriotic stirrings at midmorning Friday, standing with thousands in Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan. We looked skyward as the space shuttle prototype Enterprise was flown piggyback on a 747 past the Statue of Liberty.
The jumbo jet swooped low — on a similar path to that of the hijacked plane that struck the south tower in 2001 — and then turned up the Hudson River before flying over Long Island and Manhattan again and landing at JFK.
My wife and I then walked to the World Trade Center site, where I did what many do — snapped photos of the $3.8 billion tower rising. It is scheduled to be completed next year, its spire topping out at a patriotic 1,776 feet.
“If we didn’t build another skyscraper there,” Jason Quinn said, “the terrorists would have won again. We can’t live in fear.”
The binary code of the digital age is all zeroes and ones, and those basic numbers have transformed the world. But the distance from zero to one takes time, and many steps.
No longer “the pile” at Ground Zero, the sacred space where thousands died is the future home of what’s called “1 World Trade.”
It is built in a vertical yet walkable city where people didn’t walk away from the challenge.
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