Freedom Tower

Apparently, those who were around when President John F Kennedy was assassinated remember where they were and how they heard of his death. I wasn’t alive to have a JFK moment. I did, however, have an Elvis Presley moment: I was playing football on the street and a friend shouted to me from an overlooking window (I can picture it now) that Elvis had died. I also had a Diana moment, waking up on Sunday morning to hear the shocking news of her death. I remember 9/11 too, as it unfolded in real-time like a disaster movie.

The company I worked for in 2001 had offices near the World Trade Center. Fortunately, I was in London at the time.

On 11 September 2001, I was at work. It was a normal day. In the afternoon (New York morning), news started spreading on the internal chat system that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. This sounded far-fetched. I thought something had been lost in translation.

We started discussing what we had heard until someone decided to tune into the news. We all huddled around her PC monitor to watch what was unfolding. The news was repeatedly showing where a plane had hit the North Tower. We were shocked. The tower was smouldering. We wondered whether it was an accident. The news coverage continued. Then we saw a plane crashing into the South Tower. We stared at each other open-mouthed. There was a look of incredulity and incomprehension on our faces as we tried to make sense of what we had seen. Over the next ninety minutes or so, we watched dumbstruck as the Twin Towers collapsed. The towers that I had once stood on, stood no more.

There had been talk of replacing the World Trade Center for a while but I had lost track of what was happening. When I first learnt about One World Trade Center (aka Freedom Tower), 9/11 had become a memory. I happened to be flicking through some channels and came across a documentary on the new building. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard anything about it and, just like that, a whole new building complex had been built where the World Trade Center once stood. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see it but I was fascinated by it.

And now, several years after seeing that documentary, I was in New York. I had been to the original Twin Towers and wondered what the replacement would look like. Of course, there were no longer two towers but one.

Whilst walking to the Freedom Tower (which was now five years old), the first structure I encountered was the poignant memorial to 9/11. The memorial consists of two large pools located where the Twin Towers once stood. The North Pool and the South Pool have waterfalls running down their sides. The names of those killed are inscribed on the parapets surrounding the waterfalls.

As I stood there, recalling 9/11, there was a hushed respectful silence, as if we were in a sacred place. In all the commercialism of New York, the memorial was a fitting, understated, sombre reminder of the nearly 3000 people who had died on that fateful day.

Unlike the World Trade Center, you can’t go onto the roof of One World Trade Center. Despite that, you have to pay a hefty $38 to go to the observatory.

The lift that took us up to the top is silent and fast. The lift’s walls are covered with flat LED screens. Whilst we ascend, a video plays on the screens, showing us the changing view around the building as if the lift were made of glass. It’s impressive and turns a dull lift journey into a spectacle.

On entering the observatory on the hundredth floor, we listen to the guide give a brief talk about the building’s history. We learn that the building is 1,776 feet tall, including the spire. The height is a deliberate reference to the year the US Declaration of Independence was signed. As he finishes, the guide presses a button to theatrically raise the blinds covering the windows for the big reveal. We see our first panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline. We gasp, then clap in delight.

The 360° views from the observatory are stunning. The windows are a bit of a hindrance for taking photos: the fingerprints on them and the lights don’t help. Coincidentally, I met a British photographer who had some kind of hood contraption that stuck to the window and blocked out all the glare. His company made the hood!

There is no time limit for staying at the observatory. On the floor above, there is a restaurant, which is open only to those who’ve paid for the premium experience.

When the new complex was built, a few hundred new trees were planted around the memorial. However, one tree, a callery pear tree, had survived 9/11. It was just about alive in the rubble of the collapsed Twin Towers and was taken to a nursery in the Bronx. It wasn’t expected to survive. At the nursery, just when it seemed it might recover, a storm uprooted the tree — reducing its already slim chance of surviving. Despite that, the tree refused to die. It was replanted and became a symbol of hope and rebirth. After another year in the nursery, it was moved to the memorial and lives on. It is called The Survivor Tree.

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