World View: An emotional return to the twin towers

All I could hear was the sound of perpetually falling water.

I stood recently in the shadow of the Freedom Tower under construction, and faced one of the two parapets with names of the dead etched in bronze. Not even the rattle of jackhammers in the background could interrupt this moment for me.

I was gazing down at a square hole in the ground from which the second of the twin towers had soared. The memorial parapet framed the footprint of the 110-story building formerly known as 2 World Trade Center, or the south tower.

Water streamed in sheets down the four walls inside the square hole and flowed into a miniature square cut out in the center of the floor below. There, the water seemed to disappear into a void. Like its identical twin to the north and west, the South Pool was several stories deep and took up about an acre. This was prime Manhattan real estate, but the space had become hallowed ground.

I had been in the vicinity of the old WTC site in the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but never this close to the exact locations of the obliterated skyscrapers. The last time I visited the south tower was in the summer of 1998. I rode then with a girlfriend to the top-floor observation deck for a romantic view of my hometown's skyline. That memory now felt like a thousand years removed.

As a boy I used to gaze from the window of my family's riverfront apartment on F.D.R. Drive and East 25th Street and marvel at the twin towers that loomed above Lower Manhattan. So, during a visit to New York earlier this month, it was eerie seeing that now-empty patch of skyline from the same window.

I never thought of them as beautiful buildings. The twin towers lacked architectural aesthetic, yet they were impressive, awe-inspiring feats of engineering.

The twin towers occupied a nostalgic place in my mind. They epitomized the imperfect, though great and dynamic, city in which I grew up. They occupied a place in my imagination. The World Trade Center was where King Kong died in the 1976 remake of the movie about the giant ape. It was also where Kurt Russell made his daring rooftop landing in 1981's "Escape from New York."

Yet the most magical memory that I associate with my time in New York was the singular and real act of lunacy committed in August 1974 by the Frenchman Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope strung between the their rooftops.

The World Trade Center opened three months after I first landed in New York in January 1973, and it would be destroyed three months after I left New York for California to enroll as a graduate student at UC Berkeley. That June, as I drove south along the New Jersey Turnpike on the first leg of a solo trip cross-country in my beat-up green Toyota Tercel, I craned my neck to the left to catch a final glimpse of the city I was leaving behind. My last image of New York on that summer day in 2001 was of rain clouds obscuring the tops of the twin towers.

I'll never forget it.

Now that the National September 11 Memorial had finally opened, as a former New Yorker I could not pass up the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the old WTC site. It was an opportunity too for me to get closure. Because I was in Berkeley on the day of the attacks, I had felt guilty for having abandoned the city and not being there to help my fellow New Yorkers and the friends and brother I had left behind.

I had seen images on TV and the Internet of the two pools that make up the 9/11 memorial site. I had also seen other places where acts of terrorism had happened: Seven years after the Oklahoma City bombing, in 2002, I visited the site of the former Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which had been transformed into a memorial; in 1997, as a reporter working in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I saw the devastation caused by a truck bomb that Tamil Tiger rebels had set off in the city's financial district, killing 18 people.

Their target was a 38-story office building β€” the tallest building on the island at the time. It was known as Sri Lanka's World Trade Center. Yet those past horrors, and the images of the new memorial, could not prepare me for the lump that stuck in the throat during my visit to the World Trade Center memorial Nov. 9.

After making the required online reservation via its official website I, along with hundreds of others, lined up at the entrance off Albany and Greenwich streets for our appointed 30-minute visit, scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. that Wednesday. It was a clear but chilly fall day in New York.

Security was tight. Volunteer workers shepherded us through, double-file. As I prepared to walk through a metal detector, by force of habit post-9/11, I took off my shoes only to realize that I wasn't in an airport.

The process took 15 to 20 minutes. When I made it to the memorial, I saw a simply beautiful site without much fanfare. I paused at the South Pool first before slowly making my way around it and to the North Pool. The names of 1,993 people who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the crash of hijacked United Airlines flight 93 at Shanksville, Pa., as well as the first attack on the WTC back on Feb. 26, 1993, appeared in thematic rows around the parapets.

A section at the North Pool's northwest corner listed the names of the 87 people (not including the hijackers) who were aboard American Airlines flight 11, the first of the hijacked airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. (EST). And around the South Pool β€” the first of the towers to crumble on 9/11 but the second one attacked β€” most of the western side and much of the southern side of the parapet listed the names of the 441 first responders who died there.

After circling the pools, I stopped at one of the nearby computerized kiosks to look up a victim's name. An ex-girlfriend's former sister-in-law, a German woman named Inga (I couldn't remember her surname) had died in the hospital weeks after being injured in the attack on the World Trade Center.

On the off chance, I typed in the four letters of her name. I could not find any listing for an "inga," but the first name with those letters embedded in it that popped up on the screen belonged to Charles Burlingame III.

I remembered the name. But the reporter in me had to check my facts by putting a picture to the name. I clicked on the link, and a portrait of Burlingame in uniform, together with a short description of the role he played in 9/11, flashed on the screen.

Burlingame, a Navy veteran who had served in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, was the captain of the doomed American Airlines flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. (EST). Had he lived, he would have turned 52 the day after the attacks.

His name appeared on the 69th panel of the South Pool parapet. An image of the slate grouping the names of crew members and passengers on AA77 appeared at the top of the screen.

Next to Burlingame's name the names of the six members of his crew were listed. There was First Officer David M. Charlesbois, who was born in Morocco and was 39 years old. Beneath his name were the names of Jennifer and Kenneth E. Lewis, a husband and wife, who were both flight attendants working on the day when they died together.

Finally, as I scrolled down the column under Burlingame's name, under the listings for flight attendants Mary Jane Booth, 64, and Michelle M. Heidenberger, 52, I came to a listing for the seventh crew member.

This one put the hook in me.

I clicked on the name and up popped a photo of a blonde in winter bonnet and scarf. The listing was for American Airlines Flight Attendant Renée A. May, 39, and "her unborn child."

IMRAN VITTACHI is features editor for the Huntington Beach Independent, the Daily Pilot and the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. He can be reached at (714) 966-4633.

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