Mourners flock to Ground Zero as police prepare for protests

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 10:53 AM

NEW YORK - Long before the throngs of politicians and protestors descended on Lower Manhattan for a day of mourning and dissent, New Yorker Natasha Hardial had her own quiet moment across the street from Ground Zero.

Hardial, 33, a health-care specialist, works in the neighborhood and was there the day the towers fell. She comes every year. She snapped a photo of the site and placed a bouquet of daisies nearby. With work on the memorial underway and expected to be done next year, the World Trade Center site looms with cranes and the eerie sound of steel hammering - evoking the work that went on in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"It's still not the same. It's never going to be the same," Hardial said through tears. Saturday night, two twin beams of light will pierce the evening sky to memorialize the nearly 3,000 who died in the attacks in New York and Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.

Luminaries such as Vice President Biden and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gathered at the site Saturday morning for what has become the traditional memorial service - bells pealing at the moments the planes hit the two skyscrapers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. Family members of the victims began reading out each name. Meanwhile, New York police put the streets around the site on lockdown, barricading several blocks and closing the block of Park Place - where the contentious Park51 Islamic center is planned - to even pedestrian traffic.

"Go around to the next block," a city police officer instructed, even as she herself snapped a digital photo of the block lined with officers - capturing her moment with the place that has become the subject of a fierce national debate in recent weeks. Seventy-one percent of Americans oppose the idea of a mosque being built so close to Ground Zero, according to a recent CBS poll.

Police were girding for two large protests about the proposed Islamic Center set for later in the day. About 1 p.m., counter-protestors planned to gather on the west side of City Hall and march "against racism and for unity" to Park Place. Later in the day, a large group of opponents of the mosque planned a "9/11 Rally of Remembrance" also at the corner of Park Place and West Broadway.

Blogger and rally planner Pamela Geller - who has previously appeared in a bikini and a Superman costume to challenge Islam - has said that the rally will be decorous in honor of the day, with no chanting and flags in lieu of signs.

Rally organizer Robert Spencer, who writes a blog called "Jihad Watch," said in an e-mail interview that the rally would showcase "the legitimate concerns people have about the mosque, its funding and the dishonesty of its leadership over its sources of funding and other matters."

Terry Jones, the controversial Gainesville Florida pastor who threatened to burn the Koran, is in New York and had been expected to attend the rally, although whether he would was unclear Saturday.

"Hard to tell what's going on," Spencer said.

New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told CNN Saturday morning that police met Jones at the airport Friday night when he arrived and would be keeping a close watch on him throughout the day. The pastor told NBC Saturday he would not be burning any Korans.

As sunlight played over the exposed beams of the construction site and the bells began to ring, family members held up signs with photos of their lost loved ones.

But others stayed away. Donna Marsh O'Connor - who lost her pregnant 29-year-old daughter, Vanessa on that day nine years ago - said she couldn't bear to attend the Ground Zero ceremony, although she was in the city. She planned to return Saturday afternoon to her home in Syracuse, where she is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, keep the TV switched off and play with her dog, Lando.

The debate over whether to build the Islamic Center near Ground Zero has imbued the day with unwelcome bitterness and rancor, she said.

"This is the hardest anniversary since," she said. "These are heartbreaking times. They're painful. They are scary as hell."

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