Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ground Zero's wounds still hurt

Two New Yorkers reveal their pain, compassion

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NEW YORK -- Port Authority police officer Sean Fitzpatrick was the one who allowed us onto Ground Zero, past the fences lined with observers, away from the vendors hawking 9/11 memorabilia, to a place where you could look straight down into the massive hole that was once the World Trade Center and wonder at the fermented beliefs that could destroy those bulidings and those people.

Fitzpatrick, baby-faced and seemingly as innocent as the day is long, was in the south tower when the planes hit, below ground and able to escape. He went back in, fulfilling his duty as a police officer and an American. When it was over -- if it can ever be over for those who saw hell firsthand -- he started attending the funerals.

"I lost count. They weren't just cops, they were NYFD. My dad is a fire captain." His face flushes. "It just seemed like they'd never end."

He's talking because he needs to talk, because the anniversary is approaching and because, he admits, he's a little worried. Not afraid, mind you, just concerned.

He's talking because I'm with Ginny Canil, wife of the U.S. Consul to Manitoba, a woman who grew up in and around Manhattan and still considers the city home. He's talking because they looked at each other and knew they shared a deep personal loss.

Across the way, a good city block from us, family members stood in their own private viewing area. A few took photos, but most simply looked at the crater and wept.

There is an atmosphere at Ground Zero that mixes the reverent with the sideshow that is New York. Hotdog vendors compete for space with T-shirt sellers, and everywhere tourists take their videos.

Yadira and Abel Perez had their daughter Jerrica geared out in a foam Statue of Liberty hat, swinging from the wire fence surrounding the site. They had come on a bus trip from Rhode Island, explained dad.

"My biggest fear is that people will forget," says Canil, a 17-year member of the U.S. diplomatic corps. "I need to be here. I need to hear those names read. I want to remember them as people, not just numbers. Maybe by my remembering it, other people will remember."

This is her second trip back to New York since Sept. 11. It's no easier than the first.

"I flew to New York in October and went to Ground Zero. I was just shaking in the cab going there. The driver kept saying, 'Lady, maybe this is close enough.' I got out and walked. There was still smoke pouring out of the site and the air was foul. I looked, but didn't really look. I don't remember really walking back to the hotel at all. It must have taken two or three hours."

"I asked the concierge if she could find me a red, white and blue lapel ribbon. She ran out and got one and gave me a button that said 'Unbroken.' I will wear this ribbon at least one day for every death there was in the World Trade Center bombings."

Yesterday, the smell of smoke still baked into the buildings surrounding Ground Zero, she sobbed again as she looked at the destruction.

"They were people," she cried. "People to remember, every one."

Fitzpatrick shuffled his feet, clearly uncomfortable. He remembers the dead and the body parts of the dead, the people who flung themselves out of the buildings and the relentless recovery efforts. But he wants to think about the good, about the woman he married two months before the tragedy -- and that's how he puts it in his thick New York accent, "two months before Sept. 11" -- and about their baby, due in December. He needs to salvage joy even in the missing shadows of the World Trade Center buildings.

But he was here and he helped and he knows that each day will get easier because New Yorkers are strong, he says with a tinge of pride.

Canil and her husband, Eugene Tadie, had been in Winnipeg for two weeks when the towers were hit.

"I kept trying to reach my sister," she says of her New York-based sibling. "I just kept pushing redial. My brother-in-law worked in the financial district. For six hours, my sister didn't know where her family was. Ours wasn't the worst story, obviously, but it's changed our family. I was basically dysfunctional. I knew intuitively it couldn't happen, but I kept thinking they'd pull someone out of the rubble."

Shattered, Canil remained in isolation for a week. She emerged for two memorial services, the first at the Legislative Building and a second at city hall. It was there that Free Press photographer Ken Gigliotti took a photo of a bereft Canil being embraced by a woman she had never met. That image, which appeared in publications across North America, defined both America's grief and the loving response of our city.

"I was just a basket case," she remembers. "Shortly before Gene spoke, the chaplain from the fire department spoke and people signed the condolence book and they just embraced Gene and me. A stranger handed me a white rose, wrapped me in her arms and said something like, 'I feel so bad.' She just reached out and held me as if she'd known me for years. I just grabbed back."

She still keeps white roses in her Winnipeg home, a reminder of the kindness of strangers.

All of this is foreign to Fitzpatrick, who can't imagine people in a city he's never heard of could care so deeply about his city's tragedy. His trauma was so immense that he has blocked half of it out.

"You know, we just kept working. I couldn't get to church because they were 12-hour days. I prayed a lot. I still do."

And then this bear of a man, staring at his feet, gently weeps.

Driving into the city from LaGuardia airport, Canil said she was afraid of feeling the pain again, afraid of tearing open a wound. Yesterday at Ground Zero, she and a young police officer turned together, briefly touched hands and leaned together. There is immense pain in this place where life no longer exists, but there was also the exquisite hope that comes when humans allow their compassion to show.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2002 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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