The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A visit to the ghosts of Ground Zero

A woman places flowers on the 9/11 Memorial on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, in New York on Sept. 11. (Mike Segar/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

I’m writing this in New York City on Sept. 10, 2021: an eerie day, the sky cloudless and crystalline, a stiff breeze cruising through the canyons of Wall Street, an almost perfect recapitulation of the day I came here to remember.

I was in New York when it happened, taking a post-business-school break in my parents’ spare bedroom. One morning, while I was still pondering my coffee, my sister phoned from her job on the stock exchange to ask where my boyfriend was. I didn’t know; his bank had offices in both midtown and the World Trade Center, and he shuttled between them.

Why? I asked her.

“A plane just hit the North Tower.”

On that beautiful day, I turned on my television just in time to see the second plane hit.

I remember looking out the window after the South Tower fell, 56 minutes later, and marveling at the perfect blue of the sky; I remember thinking how funny downtown would look with only one tower standing. I remember that after the second tower collapsed, I went up to our roof, where I looked to the south, and saw a thin black line of smoke. I remember that it was days before people got a final tally of which friends and acquaintances had died, and weeks before we accepted that they were really, definitely gone, not maybe just stranded in New Jersey.

Somehow, this disaster was simultaneously completely unreal, and the realest thing that had ever happened to any of us. Like most New Yorkers, I knew the complex well — I’d worked in and around it in the 1990s, but even if you didn’t work there, you somehow kept ending up in its bowels, catching a train, or running into a store, or just passing through on your way to the World Financial Center.

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In time, I also grew familiar with the wreckage, because I a few days after 9/11 started working at Ground Zero, doing administrative work for one of the construction companies that was digging out the site. I worked there for almost a year, and then in late 2002 I left, and haven’t been back since. I couldn’t say why I never returned, exactly, except that it never seemed like the right time, until quite suddenly it felt not only right but necessary.

I assumed I would have some column-worthy thoughts on my year at Ground Zero, and what the site eventually became. But the irony of spending a year of your life on a project like that is that it becomes a year of your life: ordinary, and mostly unremarkable. By the time I left, it looked like any very large construction site, and to be honest, I have trouble connecting that hole in the ground to the buildings I’m now looking at. And so I find myself thinking instead about Sept. 11, and the days before it, when everything was still all right.

Here are key moments from ceremonies in New York, Arlington, Va., and Shanksville, Pa., to mark the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Ed Jones/The Washington Post)

For those who haven’t seen the memorial, the main part of it consists of two square pits, in the shape of the towers, with waterfalls eternally cascading down the walls. Around the edges are inscribed the names, and some of the names are people I knew. In the center, there is a smaller, deeper pit; my tour guide says it represents the hole that 9/11 left in the heart of New York City, a hole that will never heal.

I think he is right in more than one sense. To me, the new World Trade Center doesn’t feel like a real place where things happen. It feels like a tourist attraction where people try to bear witness to things that already did. Which is mostly what it is — it is even roped off at night, as I learned when I tried to visit it Thursday evening. The museum feels like … well, like any museum dedicated to some past tragedy that makes you think, “How sad.”

But I can remember an actual place, a collection of buildings remarkable chiefly for their height, and their annoying multi-stage elevators.

Despite my generally poor visual memory, the World Trade Center is vivid in my mind, more so even than the year I spent at Ground Zero: I can still enjoy the spectacular river views from its upper offices, or ride those awful elevators downstairs to window-shop at its subterranean mall. I can grab a smoothie at the salad kiosk, or a pastry from the Italian bakery, before descending to the subway. I am not, honestly, completely convinced that something so clear to me can actually be truly gone.

But of course it is, and with it, almost 3,000 people, a few of whom I knew. I don’t want to claim that I knew any of them that well: I’m not trying to borrow the grief of those who suffered devastating losses. I only say that I knew them, and resent the absence of a real person, not “an American” or “a victim of 9/11.” When I stare down into the hole at the memorial’s heart, I think about them, and the buildings they died in, and I think: They were here, and real, and now they are gone, all of them gone. For 20 years, no one has known them.

I think, too, that soon enough even those of us who remember will be gone, and then what will this memorial mean to anyone else?

Already, half of all Americans are too young to have experienced 9/11 as an adult; more than 20 percent of us weren’t even born on the day the towers fell. Still fewer of us experienced it as an attack on our own city, rather than a distant dying of strangers. We few who did are the custodians of memories that cannot outlive us, no matter how we struggle to describe them to the people who never knew what was once here. All we can pass onward is a hole in the heart of our city, and a monument to a pain that no one else can ever really feel.