At Ground Zero, A City Marks A Tragedy

Americans are paying tribute to those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks 10 years ago. Audie Cornish talks to NPR's Robert Smith. Also, transmissions from American Airlines Flight 11 provide an insight into what happened in the plane that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Audie Cornish describes the transmissions. She then talks to NPR's Robert Sigel and Tom Gjelten.

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AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

From NPR News, this is live, special coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I'm Audie Cornish. Many people are gathering in Lower Manhattan to mark today's anniversary. But as we mentioned, security around the formal event is tight, and the perimeter around the ground zero ceremonies is wide. NPR's Robert Smith is among the crowds of people in Lower Manhattan, and he joins us now. Robert?

ROBERT SMITH: Hey, Audie. I'm inside St. Paul's Chapel. Let me step outside for a moment. St. Paul's Chapel is the closest church to ground zero, and it's where a lot of first responders and people after the terrorist attacks came for shelter. And now, it's sort of the spiritual heart of ground zero. They're doing a service right now. So now, I'm outside. I think - I can talk to you at full volume.

CORNISH: What's the mood outside?

SMITH: Well, I have to say it is serious around here, but I wouldn't say it's somber. There's not, actually, very many people on the streets of Lower Manhattan. I mean, first of all, it's incredibly hard to get here. They've stopped train service. They've blocked off bridges. They've blocked off streets. It's very difficult to get anywhere close to ground zero today.

But the people who have come are generally from out of town; they're tourists. These are people who are not in the actual ceremony but just want to come down and pay respects. And there's a curiosity there. There's a seriousness. They felt like they had to mark the day, but it's not - I'll put it - it's not as somber as it was immediately after 9/11 and some of those anniversaries.

CORNISH: And Robert, you live in New York. I wonder if over the course of the past week, you've talked to people who thought that they might - who wanted to stay away, who didn't necessarily want to be a part of this anniversary.

SMITH: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I know many people left the city for the weekend. They felt it was a perfect time (technical difficulty) ...

CORNISH: Robert, I think we're losing you a little bit.

SMITH: Oh, I'm sorry. There's a lot of people who said they would not come into Manhattan whatsoever. And I live in Brooklyn; a lot of people are staying out there, going to parks. There are services all around the city, in the farthest reaches. There are serious church services and memorials but, you know, I don't think a lot of people felt like they had to come down to ground zero - knowing the security situation, and knowing how hard it would be to get here.

CORNISH: You mentioned that there are a lot of tourists and visitors. And what are people who are there telling you about why they came down to the site?

SMITH: Well, you know, it's interesting. I've met a lot of people who are either firefighters themselves or families of firefighters; not directly involved with 9/11 but they feel a camaraderie there, a kinship. And they just wanted to come down and just sort of stand here. A lot of people are handing out American flags.

You know, there's also a lot of street preachers, a lot of - sort of 9/11 truthers(ph), as they call themselves, protesters who think it was an inside job. There's those kind of people that come every year to make their point of view known. But most people are just standing and watching the ground zero area which, as Robert Siegel said, is mostly a construction area. There's not much to see there, but people feel like they could just stand and watch the sun come up over Manhattan.

CORNISH: Right. As you mentioned, I think at least five of the World Trade Center campus buildings are still under construction. What you can see there right now is essentially the memorial - the reflecting pools and the waterfalls. Robert, have you been able to get near this site at all in the last few days?

SMITH: No. I have not. I mean, I've toured it when it was more under construction. And I was just looking down on it. The way it works now is, there's a construction fence up. And these are - these waterfalls, these two footprints of the World Trade Center, are below ground. So you can't really see it unless you are right in the site. But if you get to any of the buildings above ground zero, you can look down.

And I've got to say, this morning I finally saw it with the water on and the sun coming up over Manhattan, and it was a beautiful, beautiful site. The sun sort of reflects off these streams of water going down into the blackness, into the pit that is the memorial. And the trees are young trees around the plaza, but they're beautifully arranged. I have to say, it was a moving sight just seeing the memorial from up above this morning.

CORNISH: That was NPR's Robert Smith near ground zero in New York. Thank you, Robert.

SMITH: You're welcome.

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