by John Ring

Two years after the most devastating attacks on American soil since Pearl Harbor, there have been a lot of changes in lower Manhattan.

The air is fresher. It’s much cleaner. The subway system near where the World Trade Center buildings once stood has been repaired. Cement has been poured. A viewing area has been constructed on the east side.

It’s not even referred to as "Ground Zero" any more. Simply called "The Pit," the 16-acre site is nearly a hundred feet deep as work goes on around the clock to rebuild the area – even though its final destiny is far from determined.

That’s how it was when Mike Whitson, another Galesburg firefighter, and I were there last week. We went to Ground Zero, a Memorial service at Riverside Park in the shadow of Grant’s Tomb, to an Engine Company near Times Square and to a "Safe House" by the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Pit

The Pit has taken on a clear political overtone. Families of the victims are vehement in wanting a larger memorial structure than currently planned erected and preserved at the site. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani is among the many who support this. On the south part of the site, a private viewing area has been erected to keep cameras away from the victims’ families who still visit the area.

"It’s sacrilegious. They shouldn’t be doing that out there," said an elderly mother of a victim referring to the constant sound of machinery and trucks working at the site.

Protests and speeches are common in lower Manhattan. So are peddlers selling merchandise about 9-11. The firefighters are sitting this one out, for the most part. We went there for a brief period to drop off two items from Galesburg – an art print drawn by Galesburg High School teacher Chris Dokolasa and an essay about the print that was written by freshman Amanda Mendrek.

Riverside Park

September 11th services consisted of a main gathering at Riverside Park and at individual ones at each firehouse. We were invited to participate in the FDNY formation at Riverside. No politicians were asked to attend and none were wanted. They all spoke at The Pit that day.

"When I was working down there during the recovery of victims, I saw politicians physically bump each other out of the way to get on camera," said one of the firefighters there. "It made me sick. We didn’t want any part of that."

At Riverside, names of the 343 firefighters who died on that day were read and a simple, dignified service was held. The service lasted just over an hour.

Ladder 4/Engine 54

This station was among the hardest hit on September 11th. Eleven of the 15 firefighters that responded to the World Trade Center that day perished. We had attended a memorial service for Mike Lynch in November 2001 and two of their guys recognized us. We brought with us a couple of things to give to them, had contacted them and they were expecting us. Once we got there, we were escorted into their kitchen. This is not only a busy firehouse in terms of responses made but is a fish bowl as well; tourists and visitors are there all the time.

After several minutes, the entire contingent of firefighter joined us; they had closed their doors and gathered in to see us. We spent some quality time together. They were truly moved by what hundreds of Galesburg schoolchildren had done in writing letters to Mrs. Lynch and from the items we brought with us. They thanked us many times over.

One of the first things their union did after things started to get back to normal was increase dues $1 per pay period. This money is used to send two FDNY firefighters to any line-of-duty death in the fire service across the country. "You guys attended the memorials for our guys while we were working and this is a way we can pay you back," said John Kelley, an FDNY union trustee. "Not only that, but we could talk to you guys. You understood. We needed to do that. We talked and you listened and that was important for us."

A battered sign of the original Ladder 4 hung atop of the station. It was removed from that truck after it was found buried 50 feet beneath the rubble of the WTC. The engine fired up but the truck was basically trashed.

After the service at Ladder 4, all the off-duty firefighters went across the street to T. J. Kearns Pub. It was there that we met an American Airlines pilot who had flown into Washington D.C. the night of September 10th, 2001 in the same ill-fated airliner that crashed into The Pentagon the very next day. "I knew that crew," he said. "The pilot was a decorated Vietnam veteran. I took a dog of a flight to be here today because I felt that it was important. Do I look at the passengers that get on my plane today? You bet I do. I look at them all. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out who could be a problem for you."

The Safe House

Jeremy’s Ale House sits at 254 Front St. in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. But now it’s called The Safe House because on September 11, 2001 it housed hundreds of New Yorkers, giving them a safe haven to stay at until The Bridge opened up later in the day.

The owner handed out wet towels, cooked food and provided drinks for emergency workers and people off the street. Because of that, it’s a favorite hangout for firefighters as was evidenced on the night of September 11, 2003.

T-shirts of dozens of Fire Departments hang from the ceiling. Handwritten messages on the walls of Jeremy’s convey both a resiliency and anger that was felt by many Americans on the day of the attacks. A tattered, torn American flag hangs from the ceiling that was taken from the rubble of lower Manhattan on that day.

As we left, we met two of the bag-pipers from the FDNY honor guard. We were outside with them, thanked them for what they did at Riverside Park earlier in the day. They were friendly but worn out. They were almost comatose.

It was late in the night. We talked in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. The conversation went to Yankees-Cubs, Giants-Bears. We got a laugh out of them, especially about the Bears.

As we left to catch the subway up north, two twin lights shot up into the New York night, symbolizing where the towers once were. They were just a few blocks away. We were still in the Safe House. And one of the bag-pipers leaned up against the fence, looking that way.

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. His right hand grabbed the fence and he wept.