We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Finding strange beauty and a natural memorial at Ground Zero

“Look, the metal is glowing,” National Guard Specialist Pete Gembala says as he points to the jagged remnants of 2 World Trade Center. Gembala is gently guiding me—”Careful, ma’am, watch your step, ma’am”—down what was once West Street but is now a mess of mud, wooden planks, and tangled metal. It is four days after the attack. We have been walking around “the site,” as the National Guard medics delicately call Ground Zero, for nearly an hour on this Saturday afternoon.

To the north, a truck-mounted grappler pulls a crushed firetruck from the wreckage—”It looks like one of the big pumpers,” Gembala says—while exhausted firemen coming off 24-hour shifts suck down Snapples and bottled water, face masks removed in the throat-tightening smoke. Behind them rests another mangled truck carcass, driver’s seat thrust forward around the rig’s crushed steering wheel. To the south, yellow plastic police tape cordons off a square, muddy pen. Three hand-lettered cardboard signs hanging from the tape announce, “NYPD Crime Scene,” “Human Remains,” “Aircraft Debris.”

A single row of midnight-blue-clad New York Police Department officers stands within the tape’s rough geometry, arms crossed. They keep a watchful eye over two body bags. One seems full. The other’s black surface is lifted midway by a lump, then falls flat again, half-empty.

Gembala gestures toward the still-standing wreckage of 2 World Trade Center again. I look for the glow of hot metal, but don’t see it. It is hard to communicate: We’re both wearing Army-issue toxic-dust filters that muffle our voices, so I’m not sure I’ve understood him.

“It’s the light,” he shouts toward me. “At this hour, around sunset, it glows. You should come back with a camera.”

The silver exoskeleton of the South Tower’s southwest corner looms over Ground Zero’s blighted landscape. “Like a European church,” Gembala suggests, pointing out how the blast transformed modernist simplicity into Gothic arches at the structure’s demolished base. With the setting of the sun—and before the klieg lights come on to illuminate the wreck—the jagged silver lattice picks up a red-and-orange glow. It radiates soft color. The effect is striking.

We leave the site, passing exhausted firefighters sprawled in bistro chairs outside a dust-encrusted bar on Albany Street, a scene that looks like some psychotic vision of a Parisian cafe. At the HSBC bank on Broadway, now a military-supply/relief center, a volunteer with a digital camera rushes over to show me his pictures.

He took them on Day One, when the fires were still raging. He scrolls through the images, enlarging, reducing, giving me a running commentary. He’s an artist, he tells me.

“Look at this one,” he says, showing me a shot of the ruined South Tower. It rises high on his screen’s left side, backlit by a hazy orange glow that slides down to the right of the frame, where a group of firefighters is at work. “I hate to say it,” he says, “but look how beautiful it is.” He’s right: The composition is perfect, the colors are rich and luminous. It is exhausting to contemplate.

“Many have come up to me again today and told me they could not have imagined it unless they saw it for themselves,” New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stated on Sept. 21, describing the reaction of 40 senators who had toured Ground Zero with her.

“My colleagues were just dumbstruck,” Clinton said. “They were overwhelmed by what they saw. Even though they followed it avidly—they certainly watched the television and read everything they could—they weren’t prepared for this massive destruction that we viewed.”

This is the usual reaction to visiting Ground Zero. “One emergency worker down there told me, ‘Please, please, show it like it really is. It seems sanitized when people see it on television,’” a somber Katie Couric related on Today. “And the fact of the matter is, it’s impossible to show it. It’s an experience that really assaults all your senses, you know, your sense of smell, your—your eyes, your hear—your ears, I mean. It’s—it’s quite overwhelming.”

Ground Zero is something you take with you when you leave the site. It leaves lips burned and dried from smoke, throat aching, hair reeking, boots encrusted with a greasy mud that doesn’t wash off with water. To visit the wreckage is to gain a transformative knowledge—the difference between knowing an herb is bitter and tasting it on your tongue.

It is something we no longer have a word for, but once did: “sublime.” Today the word is trivial—something you’d use to describe an especially exquisite dessert. Or what one 7th Avenue fashionista might say to another upon seeing a particularly beautiful bias-cut dress.

Two centuries ago, the word meant something very different, a quality that is the violent twin of beauty. “Terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime,” wrote Edmund Burke in his 1756 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant with terror, is a source of the sublime.”

More than one writer has noted something akin to beauty in the disaster of the World Trade Center and resulting wreckage. “There were the unfathomable, even beautiful, pictures of the planes penetrating the towers, then the magnificent plumes, then the heaving and condensing of the buildings themselves,” wrote Michael Wolff in New York magazine. Jonathan Franzen noted the “terrible beauty of the towers’ collapse” in the New Yorker.

“Unfathomable,” “magnificent,” “terrible”: These are all words that belong to the sublime. The sublime, Burke asserts, is different than the beautiful, an experience derived from a sensation of pain instead of from pleasure. And its source in pain, which is more powerful than pleasure, means that the sublime produces “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Furthermore, Burke argues, the “strongest emotion” of the sublime “is an emotion of distress, and…no pleasure from a positive cause belongs to it.”

Burke associates the sublime with the experience of vastness, power, obscurity, terror, privation, difficulty, magnificence, suddenness, and feelings of pain. All these elements play across the surface of the World Trade Center wreckage. Those things that are sublime dwarf us, astonish us, strike us with awe and reverence and fear. All things beyond the limits of human grasping are sublime, and Burke’s contemporaries and Romantic successors found them in Gothic romances, horror stories, and macabre paintings—and also in ruins.

Art critic Jed Perl set off a discussion of the World Trade Center as a ruin in a piece published in the New Republic Online Sept. 18. “Uneasy about the magnetic pull” of photographs of “ash and smoke hanging in the air, of the twisted carcasses of tower façades, of rubble seen from the air, and, most horrifyingly, of bodies in free fall,” Perl looks to the responses of British artists in London during the Blitz. After wondering why they were drawn to the jagged forms and broken lines of bombed-out sites around the city, Perl concludes: “[T]he fascination with ruins gives us a way of lingering over the incomprehensible until it becomes comprehensible. By turning broken forms into pictures we can begin to reconstruct an idea of wholeness.”

Perhaps that explains the pull of Ground Zero and the way that even National Guard medics can be entranced by the visual spectacle.

But to me, the remains of the World Trade Center do not yet seem a ruin. That is too passive, too finished a condition. It is a living, smoking wreck. It is a thing destroyed and undergoing daily deconstruction. On Wednesday, Sept. 26, the last cathedrallike remnant of the South Tower was cut down to allow workers to go about their duties more safely—and the strongest visual suggestion of ruins was removed from the site.

A ruin exerts its power in part by suggesting the passage of long stretches of time. Ruins are preserved history, worn relics from the past that remind us of our mortality. The World Trade Center was destroyed all at once, and Ground Zero is being taken apart as quickly as possible, day by day, piece by piece.

It is not just a reminder of mortality, but the site of it. It is the temporary mass grave of more than 6,000 people. It is alluring, extraordinary, and horrific beyond imagination.

How any memorial could describe, honor, and encompass it is also beyond imagining. It seems impossible that any work of human hands could adequately represent it. There can be only one solution: To preserve part of the wreckage, restore it to the site one day, and let the jagged, rusting, ruined edges of its metal describe this act of violence to posterity.

I did not expect to find, at Ground Zero, rescue workers and volunteers pointing out the strange beauty of the wreckage. But then again, this is New York, and New Yorkers are accustomed to finding splendor in the lines of smokestacks, in the silhouettes of buildings against sky.

And I did not go to Manhattan to see Ground Zero, but to act as maid of honor at my sister’s Sept. 16 wedding. Also to visit my parents.

My father, a landscape painter, had a studio on the 91st floor of the North Tower, just a few floors below where American Airlines Flight 11 sliced into the building and burst into flames at 8:48 a.m. Sept. 11. He had worked there, on and off, for a year and a half, as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s program to place artists in vacant spaces at the World Trade Center.

He was nowhere near the towers when the planes hit, and all he lost in the collapse were some of his paintings. Michael Richards, a sculptor in the program, is still missing and presumed to be among the unrecovered dead. And Moukhtar Kocache, the Lebanese-American who ran the program, was subjected to racist insults and spat on while trying to ascertain the fate of the other artists who’d had studios in the tower.

Since the attack, my father has been trying to re-create the painting he had been working on: the complex mosaic of interlocking, overlapping buildings that was the view of lower Manhattan looking north from his celestial perch.

He is trying to repaint Manhattan from memory. It is a monumental task, but one that he is not alone in. Thousands of people in and around New York are coping with the task of honoring other now-vanished vantage points—of memorializing life before the attack, life before loss, life before death.

If Ground Zero has become the locus of our collective grief, where we have lost a powerful symbol and a part of our national landscape, then the impromptu shrines that have sprouted all over the streets of New York function, like my father’s new painting, to bear witness to the individual aspects of and responses to this tragedy.

The shrines began to appear almost instantly. They are the organic and first memorials to the loss of life at the World Trade Center. They are as multifaceted and personal as the losses themselves. One family plastered posters of a young woman up and down the West Village, showing her in different outfits, at the beach, at work, at home, as if sheer coverage of the city could somehow conjure her back into life.

Even here in the District, in Cleveland Park, a shrine sprang up: a few candles and flowers laid beneath a page describing the murdered Pentagon workers torn from the Washington Post, its newsprint fastened to a brick wall with tape. These are the individual public memorials. Each “missing” poster is a harbinger of memorial programs to come, as public photos become private once again and grief recedes to more intimate circles.

But the same impulse that has driven people to stop by firehouses, to make donations, and to leave flowers at the bases of lampposts and telephone booths and the exterior walls of random buildings—any place that bears a “missing” poster—drives people to try to catch a glimpse of Ground Zero.

Is it maudlin or ghoulish to journey down Canal Street so you can catch your breath with horror at the view of the wreckage, reduced to the size of your thumb by perspective? Is it just rubbernecking? Or is it something deeper? A desire to experience that transcendent, sublime moment in which the mind is filled with contemplation of the ungraspable? A way of paying final respects, the search for a transformative knowledge?

At Ground Zero, press entry is restricted, but virtually every worker has a camera. The rescue personnel, firemen, police officers, engineering specialists, Verizon crews, clergymen, soldiers, Federal Emergency Management officials—hundreds of them have cameras. They stop in their tracks, on breaks, between shifts, stand in the streets, edge up to the massive piles and machines in motion—and snap.

One National Guard medic offered to drive off in her Army ambulance to commandeer some film for me after I mentioned to her that I had run out. I told her not to bother, but sensed the helplessness implicit in her offer. There was no one for her to treat; she wanted desperately to be useful.

Though they know that there is a certain impiety in looking, the people at the site want you to see. And they want to document, themselves, what they are seeing. Whoever writes the history of the wreck will find it stored in the private photo albums of the people who are spending their days at the shifting scene. Ground Zero, in its own way, is also already a shrine. There are no candles there, no flowers. The only “missing” posters at Ground Zero show photos of airplane black boxes, so workers can identify them. But it is a place of prayer and remembrance that inexorably draws congregants.

Already, more than 100,000 tons of debris have been hauled away from the site. Streets have begun to reappear, distinct from the still horrific but ever-receding wreckage. After the remains of the South Tower came down, workers saved part of it for a possible memorial.

Maybe after time has softened its sharp edges, and life again flows unremarkably upon the site of the former wreck, we can look upon the World Trade Center’s ruins and think, once more, simply of the haunting play of fading sunlight upon metal. CP