Ground Zero

One of the first things you see when you approach the viewing platform that overlooks ground zero, the site where the World Trade Center once stood, are the thousands of messages written on flags, bedsheets, planks, teddy bears, T-shirts, hats--anything that can hold ink.

Pray for the victims who endured this horrific tragedy.... We are strong and we will survive.... God bless our fallen heroes in our hearts. Love, Phil, Deborah and Ashley.... God Bless America.... North Dakota is praying for you.... RIP from England.... New Hampshire remembers all those lost.... Great strength. Honor, duty, true firemen, true cops. We salute you. The squad. Syracuse Police Department.... Sleep well America. The Marines are on duty tonight. Officer Shane Keeney. Northern Correctional Institute.... Thank you to all our heroes. May God Bless America. Greg Packer. Huntington, New York, USA.

It is more than a swelling stream of sentiment. The messages, some written by people from as far away as Japan, are an attempt to heal a hole in America's heart.

In the early months after the attack, police and the National Guard cordoned off large sections of lower Manhattan to anyone who didn't live or work there. But those who managed to get through wandered around the grim, almost deserted downtown trying to glimpse the rubble through fences and over barriers. Fires smoldered where the towers once stood, the air was toxic, and twisted steel, shattered windows and building skeletons looked like the ruins of a bombed city.

Six months after the attack, the picture has brightened somewhat. Downtown restaurants and some businesses have reopened. A posh hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park, debuted recently.

At the ground zero site, city officials erected a viewing platform in late December, amid some objections that the idea was ghoulish and disrespectful. But the platform proved popular, and in January officials began a ticket distribution system so visitors can pay tribute in an orderly manner. Free, timed tickets are now necessary to gain access to the simple platform. Each group is allowed to stay 10 minutes or longer (depending on the crowds), then make way for the next.

What they see is a huge cleanup project swarming with hard-hatted workers, heavy machinery and firefighters searching for lost comrades.

In the rest of Manhattan, major attractions that were closed because of fears of terrorism have reopened. Many, like the Empire State Building, have tighter security. But only a few places popular with tourists aren't completely up and running: The inside of the Statue of Liberty continues to be off-limits, for example, and tours of the New York Stock Exchange, just blocks from ground zero, have not resumed since Sept. 11.

Visiting the World Trade Center site can be a profoundly moving experience. Some people stand alone with their thoughts; others share their feelings.

"It's so much bigger than I anticipated," Tom Bach, a firefighter from Seattle, said a few days ago as he stood on the platform. "It's still very fresh. It seems like it just happened."

Bill Sumner, who works in sales in Memphis, Tenn., stood nearby. "I don't think in my lifetime we'll ever forget," Sumner said. "I spent three years in the Marine Corps, and I wish I had on the uniform now."

Marking six months after the attack, two huge columns of light evoking the towers are being beamed to the sky from a vacant lot adjacent to the former trade center complex. The temporary tribute will continue until April 13, but the intensely bright lights go out each night at 11.

"The Sphere," a bronze sculpture by the artist Fritz Koenig that once stood at the center of the WTC plaza, was damaged but is now on display in nearby Battery Park.

Those who want to see ground zero from the viewing platform pick up their tickets at the South Street Seaport Pier 16 ticket booth and are assigned times to arrive at the entrance to the platform, at Broadway and Fulton Street, about a 20-minute walk away. Vendors along the route sell souvenirs: hats with the logos of the New York City police and fire departments, T-shirts, pictures of the twin towers before the terrorist attacks and photographs of rescue workers responding to the crisis.

The platform is not the only way to see the site, however. Visitors can wander around the perimeter of the area and even take pictures, which for months was not allowed. A particularly good spot, according to one man who works in the area, is the corner of Church and Vesey streets on the north side.

For many people, the trip to the trade center is a pilgrimage.

"We just had to come. We just felt we had to see it, so we drove out," said a woman from Buffalo Grove, Ill., as she fought back tears while she and her husband walked up the ramp to the platform. Both declined to give their names.

But others, including many New Yorkers, are reluctant to visit the site. "I don't want to bring back those memories," said Sharon Russell from Darien, Conn., as she hesitantly obtained tickets for herself and her mother, Joyce Hall, who was visiting from England.

"She wants to see it," Russell said. "She knows a couple of British people who were killed."

There are several ways to pass the time between getting tickets and showing up at ground zero.

South Street Seaport has a museum and walking tours of the waterfront. One of the most appropriate local attractions is Fraunces Tavern, a well-known restaurant at 54 Pearl St., which closed briefly after the attacks. The building is where George Washington bade farewell to his officers on Dec. 4, 1783, at the end of the Revolutionary War.

Heightened security is the hallmark of New York's major attractions. Circle Line boats, which carry tourists from downtown Manhattan to the Statue of Liberty and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, require them to go through airport-style metal detectors and X-ray machines. Large packages and backpacks aren't allowed on Liberty Island, and though visitors can't yet enter the Statue of Liberty, they can still gather at its base.

Just across the Brooklyn Bridge, at 1 Water St., is the River Café, which has extraordinary views from its site on a docked river barge. "When you look at the skyline, there is so much to see from our setting. There are still a lot of breathtaking buildings," said manager Scott Stamford. "Some people are not quite sure where the trade center was situated."

The Empire State Building, which has replaced the twin towers as New York's tallest skyscraper, has also reopened. The 102-story building, on Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th streets, was completed in 1931.

Before ascending to the observation decks, people have to pass through metal detectors and put their belongings through X-ray scanners. But it's worth it. Clear-day views can take in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey--as well as lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center once stood.

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Goldman is a national reporter in The Times' New York bureau.