On Sept. 9, Texas A&M University-San Antonio will unveil a portion of Ground Zero 360, a retrospective exhibit that commemorates the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The exhibit includes a wall of missing persons flyers, fragmented twisted steel and broken granite from the World Trade Center, the flag that flew over Ground Zero, and other objects that provide a visceral connection to the terrorist attacks in 2001.
Three survivor families will attend the exhibit's opening and participate in a public Survivor Tree dedication ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 11. The Survivor Tree was the only tree that remained after the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings. The Callery pear tree was found beneath tons of rubble – scorched, split open, and damaged – but alive.
After being nursed back to health by members of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the Survivor Tree continued to provide seedlings for commemorative planting. Since 2013, the 9/11 Memorial has awarded qualified applicants a 10-foot seedling to plant in their respective communities. A&M-San Antonio is the first university to receive one.
"It's very special to have this tree here to recognize the victims of 9/11," Randi Berkovsky, social media coordinator for the university said. "Its location in the Healing Garden of the university’s Patriots’ Casa will provide a permanent memorial for all victims of 9/11, with a special emphasis on military victims."
The tree planting ceremony will take place Sunday at 8 a.m. Patriots’ Casa, which has been providing academic support for military-affiliated students since 2014, is the first of its kind in the U.S.
The Ground Zero 360 artifacts will be transported from Patriots' Casa to the former Federal Reserve Building at 126 E. Nueva St.in October. A recently signed cooperative agreement with Bexar County provided the university with nearly 10,000 sq. ft. of operating space which will allow public access to the 4,000 sq. ft. exhibit at no cost. The exhibit can be viewed during the facility's normal operating hours, which are Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., from Oct. 17 through Feb. 17, 2017.
Exhibit Provides Visceral Connection to 9/11 Attacks
In the aftermath of the attacks, New York-based photographer Nicola McClean took thousands of photographs near Ground Zero and in the surrounding neighborhoods. Her photos created the foundation for the Ground Zero 360 traveling exhibition.
The initial 1,500 sq. ft. installation at the Patriots’ Casa will contain a portion of the complete exhibit whereas the downtown location will hold the entire collection of photographs and objects from the impact site, as well as a unique panoramic installation. Ground Zero 360 visitors will be able to see, hear, and even touch what many experienced on Sept. 11. Previously unreleased radio calls by New York City emergency responders from the morning of the attacks, as well as pieces of a twisted steel I-beam and broken granite from the World Trade Center are center points of the exhibition. Families of police officers and firefighters who lost their lives during and in the aftermath of the attacks also lent personal artifacts.
People visiting the collection at Patriots' Casa will be able to touch a twisted piece of steel girder from one of the towers and view reproductions of the missing persons posters, victims' personal artifacts, and the flag that flew over the impact site.
An especially moving part of the exhibit are two four-sided steel towers – each exactly 9 feet and 11 inches tall – that have the names of all 2,996 victims engraved on their panels. After some searching, I was able to find and touch the name of a former colleague and friend who was killed at the Pentagon that day.
A Star of David welded from World Trade Center steel remnants is displayed alongside items that belonged to three Jewish firefighters who lost their lives. Items from NYPD police officers Moira Smith and Brian McDonnell and FDNY firefighter Kevin O'Rourke may create or deepen personal connections to the lives lost 15 years ago. The officers' children Katharine McDonnell, Patricia Smith, and Jamie O'Rourke will plant the 8-foot seedling during the Sept. 11 ceremony at Patriots' Casa.
Michelle Mason, Texas regional director for the Ground Zero 360 exhibit and a retired NYPD sergeant from the 41st Precinct, shared with the Rivard Report details about her experience with anxious families and the missing persons flyers in the aftermath of 9/11.
"Every day a bus would take us (first responders) to Ground Zero and when we would get off the bus, family members would come up and hand us these flyers with their loved one's picture on it," Mason remembered. "After working 17 hours (at Ground Zero) we would come back to the bus (pick up site) and these family members were still there waiting for us to ask if we had found anything."
Paul McCormack, the curator and director of the Ground Zero 360 exhibit, is also a retired NYPD commander of the 41st Precinct – "Fort Apache," he said, "you know, in the Bronx, like in the Paul Newman movie." He showed the Rivard Report a twisted steel fragment that was donated by the father of one of the victims, FDNY firefighter Michael Lynch.
"Michael Lynch's remains were the last to be recovered from Ground Zero" in March 2012, McCormack said. The recovery and cleanup effort at Ground Zero took eight months and 19 days.
Patrick Jackson, brother-in-law of FDNY firefighter O'Rourke, has traveled with the Ground Zero 360 exhibit in order to talk to visitors and help provide a personal connection to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Traveling with the exhibit for the past three years since the exhibit has come to Texas has been amazing, meeting so many wonderful people," Jackson said. "I want people to know how for Kevin (O'Rourke) it was his true calling to do good for people."
What many may not realize is that 9/11 survivors and responders still feel the impacts of the attacks today. Both McCormack and Mason suffer from long-term health problems as a result of their exposure to Ground Zero.
"There are 286 (people) living in Texas (who are) in the World Trade Center health and monitoring program," Mason explained. "That includes first responders, volunteers, and former New York City residents affected by Ground Zero."
Strong Military Connection Evident
Given A&M-San Antonio’s focus on embracing its military-affiliated students, its intent for hosting the exhibit and planting the tree is to commemorate the victims of 9/11, with a special emphasis on military victims. The only designated Purple Heart University in San Antonio, the university has a strong connection with the military as nearly 18% of its student body identifies as military-affiliated.
A&M-San Antonio's director of Military Affairs, Richard Delgado Jr., served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He emphasized the profound impact Sept. 11 had on the military community.
"We want to highlight the military involvement during the horrific moments of 9/11 and how it forever changed military operations," Delgado said. "I was on active duty with the Marine Corps at the time of the attacks and we were scrambling jets to patrol the U.S. domestic airspace.
Delgado added that San Antonio first responders who went to New York City to help with relief efforts would also be attending the ceremony on Sunday. "It's vitally important to remember the sacrifices made," he said. "That's why we think it's important for Texas A&M to host this exhibit and plant a Survivor Tree seedling."
Top image: A collection of flyers of missing loved ones that were made after Sept. 11. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.