Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

You can taste the sadness in the air

The moment I stepped out of my yellow cab in lower Manhattan, I knew it had been a mistake to come here.

The moment I stepped out of my yellow cab in lower Manhattan, I knew it had been a mistake to come here.

I was turning up at Ground Zero for no other reason than to gawp at the most tragic hole in the ground known to man.

I'd seen the aftermath of La Mon, McGurk's Bar and the Abercorn in my time and should have known better.

But, like millions of other visitors to the Big Apple, I was drawn by an irresistible force ahead of tomorrow's fifth anniversary of 9/11.

At least I wasn't so insensitive that I wanted to have my picture taken in the pitiful gap where the Twin Towers once stood, and where so many innocents and the brave firemen who had rushed to their rescue perished.

New Yorkers, for whom the grief is taking a lot longer than that choking dust to evaporate, don't appreciate eyeballers with digital cameras flashing - and there are hordes of them.

The skies are blue again and there is a bustle of everyday life all around, yet you can taste the sadness in the summer air.

The awful memories hang over this place like a shroud. There is an agonising feeling even if there is little foundation for it, that all the dead haven't been laid to rest yet, that there could be bodies down in the depths that will never be recovered.

Perhaps that's one reason why there are none of the usual scrawled obscenities on the hoardings that surround Ground Zero.

Like the ocean bed where the Titanic lies, this is a place where death lurked, a final resting place, a grave, and is treated with reverence.

Alas today, New York is still dithering about what is going to happen to Ground Zero.

On my afternoon, a strike with political overtones had brought work on the site to a standstill. Only a bulldozer with a flat tyre was moving in the barren wasteland - and merely to have the offending wheel replaced.

And I couldn't help thinking of similar situations back home when I learned of serious differences between New York's politicians and the families of the dead about what should eventually arise from the ashes.

Emotions run high as the politicians refuse to treat Ground Zero as the sacred ground it has become in spite of them and plan to rebuild the Twin Towers only with suitable plaques inscribed in remembrance of the 3,000 who died on the day terrorism struck.

Victims' support groups who want a kind of war memorial built are in open conflict with the political men and so the sorry saga lingers on.

"The Empire State Building went up in a year and America recovered from Pearl Harbour in four," said one mourner at Ground Zero. "Yet after all the time since 9/11, all we have in Lower Manhattan, where so many were cut down, is a huge hole and that situation is breaking the hearts of ordinary New Yorkers."

While I'm still not sure I made my trip to Ground Zero for the right reasons, at least I did learn something important: Those who grieve after loved-ones snatched from them by acts of wickedness are the same the world over.

Whether it's New York or Northern Ireland, they desperately seek ways of keeping the spirit of the departed alive and, sometimes, reason and common sense are forgotten in the deepness of their loss.

Far be it for me to chastise a single one of them.

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