August 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Gage

New York's site of sorrow becomes symbol of survival

The pool at the former site of the World Trade Center marks the footprint of one of the towers that fell. (Tom Gage / Detroit News)

New York — He was a fireman, or so I thought.

And, dressed like a fireman, he was coming through the gate leading to the rubble that once had been the gleaming World Trade Center.

I asked him for a comment. He said he’d speak with me only if I prayed with him first.

The fireman was a priest.

So we prayed.

We joined hands as people walked past us, praying for the victims — a spontaneously spiritual moment I’ve never forgotten. Nor ever will.

The year was 2001.

The month was October, the last day of it, 50 days after the Twin Towers had toppled.

I was in New York covering the World Series. Up in the Bronx, there was excitement, anticipation — and life.

Not so at Ground Zero.

The contrast of the two demanded to be written about. Baseball to the north, sorrow to the south.

The power of the game to lift us from our problems compared to the pervasive power of evil.

Fifty days after 9/11. Rubble and dust everywhere.

Suffering that was palpable. Photos of the missing still on the fence near the miraculously undamaged St. Paul’s Chapel, which served for months as headquarters for recovery workers.

Hundreds of photos.

The horror of 9/11 was still so raw, and a thought I didn’t know I would think took hold. I had no business being there, observing, gawking.

I had no business being there if I couldn’t help.

And I couldn’t help.

So I went back to the subway stop I’d just emerged from and hurried back to baseball.

'Back on our feet'

I returned to the area Tuesday, not for the first time since 2001, but for the first time since the 9/11 Memorial has become reality.

Would I still feel I had no business being there? I knew no one in either tower. I knew only one person killed, a relative by marriage.

Not even my relative, but my sister’s.

So before covering the Tigers-Yankees game in which David Price would make his first start with Detroit — the same baseball-9/11 dichotomy of 13 years ago — I took the subway to Ground Zero.

Except it’s not Ground Zero anymore. It is Ground Recovery, Ground Hope. Ground “We’re Back on our Feet.”

Symbolizing the recovery is the “Survivor Tree” that grows on the premises, a pear tree that was nothing but a stump after the attacks.

But it was nursed back to health. And now, as the 9/11 Memorial brochure points out, the tree “embodies the resilience that is so important to the history of 9/11.”

Reverence at the Memorial was the order of the day, though.

I saw no vendors. You won’t be pressured to buy a souvenir or pose for a photo available to purchase.

I didn’t see any commercial exploitation. I can’t say it doesn’t exist, only that I didn’t see it.

There was also no one whose music needed to be turned down. Again, they might have been there, but I didn’t see them. I didn’t hear them.

Respect prevailed, thankfully.

I did see a little girl being allowed to crawl over the names of victims as she precariously approached the edge of the waterfall.

But she was stopped in her tracks by one of the many security officers who patrol the area, one who looked at the adult permitting the youngster to play where she shouldn’t and firmly said, “Sir, this is a memorial.”

Names of the nameless

Indeed, it is. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives here.

And while you stare at the stark beauty of the two pools that serve as the footprints of the towers themselves, the impact is in the names.

They are etched in bronze around the two similar pools with their 30-foot waterfalls and center voids into which the water of the pools hauntingly disappears.

They are the names of those who lost their lives — in the buildings, on the planes or responding.

They are the names of the nameless for which I prayed with the priest in 2001.

I didn’t know Rodney C. Gillis, Vincent G. Danz, Jerome Mark Patrick Dominguez, Joseph Amatuccio or James Patrick Leahy — etched names I suddenly was standing next to.

They were sons and brothers, husbands and fathers.

They also became the reasons for my visit. Instead of turning around and leaving because I had no business being there, it was my business to be there.

And the business of those shedding tears as they bowed their heads.

In fitting tribute to the souls that were lost.

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