News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

In tragedy, a rush to heal

Two years later, Sept. 11 relatives hasten to honor fallen

DALLAS -- From first thing in the morning until late at night, Jeff West can look out from his office to Dealey Plaza and find them there, the middle-aged men with the video cameras, the grandmothers with vivid memories, and the youngsters with questions, who come from all over the country and even the globe to climb the grassy knoll and see the very spot where President Kennedy was shot. West, an affable Alabamian who has directed the Sixth Floor Museum in the former Texas School Book Depository for a decade, is sure the crowds will swell this fall and number in the thousands on Nov. 22, the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's murder in a Dallas motorcade. "This is something we don't get over," West said. "We come back every year to what we have lost and to a moment that transformed our country."

That power of a tragic place will pull the nation to New York City, Washington, and Shanksville, Pa., this week to remember and mourn the horrific terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 two years ago. While the official commemorations planned for Thursday are purposely survivor-centered and less political than last year's, the death sites themselves are undergoing an unexpectedly rapid conversion into permanent memorials honoring the dead.

That trend -- with families leading the charge to quickly designate killing fields as memorials to victims instead of sites of shame, is relatively new in American life. Scholars say it is a protest against the anonymity of mass death, and is fueled by intense media coverage that connects people to the victims and tells their poignant stories.

In Dallas, it took seven years for the disgraced city to erect a downtown monument to Kennedy and 25 years for a museum to open at the site where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly aimed at the president and fired his rifle.

The USS Arizona Memorial was dedicated 21 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, partly because the US Navy was reluctant to commemorate a defeat. Boston never marked the site of the disastrous Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire of 1942 that claimed 492 lives.

Kenneth E. Foote, a University of Colorado geographer, began to research how violence and tragedy shape the American landscape after visiting Salem and finding few mentions of the 1692 witchcraft trials and no markers at all at Gallows Hill, where 19 accused witches were hanged. He traveled across the country, finding many examples of tragic, historic sites either erased from memory or, like the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in 1968, embraced by a minority group and turned into a memorial or museum only decades later.

Now, Foote said, he is seeing a new trend, with sites memorialized immediately and dedicated to a positive purpose, for public healing or teaching or giving context to senseless violence. "The speed with which decisions are being made is quite remarkable," Foote said. "In New York it's almost too rushed, but because of commercial pressures at the World Trade Center site, it's not unexpected."

Memorials reflect the fears, hopes, needs, and convictions of the generation that erects them, said Edward Linenthal, whose book, "The Unfinished Bombing," examines how the stricken residents of Oklahoma City in five years built a consensus and a moving, multifaceted memorial from the ashes of what was then the worst terrorist attack on American soil, the bombing that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people.

"Largely because of the media, people everywhere become enfranchised to the survivors, entranced by their drama and heartbreak, and feel they know those who died," said Linenthal, a professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. "The immediacy and intensity of remembrance is tied up with the way people feel really, really connected to the victims and the belief that memorials can heal."

Visitors come around the clock to the memorial at Oklahoma City and are deeply moved, especially at the powerful sight of a lighted field of 168 empty chairs, said Frank Keating, governor of Oklahoma at the time of the bombing and in its aftermath.

"This was an attack on us all. It was an incredibly challenging time in our history," Keating said. "We don't want to remember the horror, but we need to remember the courage and heroism of special people at a terribly horrible time. That ordinary people can do extraordinary things is a very important civic lesson."

That's what residents are finding in the rural hamlet of Shanksville, Pa., population 245. The site of the crash of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 has attracted so many visitors -- an estimated 70,000 since Memorial Day -- that the community has set up a corps of 40 volunteer "ambassadors" to guide, answer questions, record comments, and offer comfort.

Gasoline stations now provide maps from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the reclaimed strip mine 20 minutes away, the local Chamber of Commerce has directions on its website, and the county historical society is collecting, cataloging, and storing nearly every memento that visitors leave behind. At last count, the pieces numbered 10,000.

"We certainly didn't expect this. As the memory fades and other things become important, we thought this would fade, too, and the visitation would begin to trickle off," said Barbara Black, who is overseeing the preservation project as curator of the Somerset Historical Center.

"But the site is never empty," she said. "People come from Idaho to Florida to foreign countries and say this place has great meaning to them because ordinary citizens on Flight 93 fought back, and that has influenced and changed their lives."

Black said Sept. 11, 2001, is challenging historians not to wait 50 years to decide what is worth remembering, saving, and memorializing, but to accelerate the capturing of the artifacts, oral histories, and meaning of extraordinary current events. Indeed, Congress acted with lightning speed to designate the crash site as a national memorial, and a task force of survivor families and community members will start soliciting ideas and designs from the public on Thursday.

It is the same story in New York and at the Pentagon, where committees of public officials, victims' families, and architects formed almost spontaneously to follow Oklahoma City's example and create memorials that remember the victims by name and make the tragic sites sacred places.

"It's moving quickly. The community, in general, feels very responsible that something be done in a way that will make the country proud," Black said.

Jim Laychak, whose brother, David, an Army civilian employee, was killed on Sept. 11, is heading a $20 million fund-raising campaign to build and maintain a memorial park near the site where hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. The park, expected to open in 2005, will be a quiet place with 184 benches, one inscribed for each victim and organized in a timeline from the youngest, for a 3-year-old girl, to the oldest, a 71-year-old man.

"In this world of instant messaging, e-mails, and real-time reporting from Iraq, someone who has lost a loved one wants a permanent reminder, and you need to do it quickly, before people can forget," said Laychak, who plans to attend a wreath-laying ceremony on Thursday with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at Arlington National Cemetery and visit his brother's grave in Manassas, Va.

A finalist is expected to to be named this fall to design a memorial complex as part of a multiuse redevelopment on 16 acres of prime real-estate where the twin towers stood before Sept. 11. More than 5,200 entries were submitted -- almost nine times the number received in Oklahoma City -- testifying to the intense public engagement in marking the tragedy at ground zero, where 2,801 people perished.

Lee Ielpi, a retired New York firefighter, lost his 29-year-old son, Jonathan, on Sept. 11 after his fire-rescue unit was called to the World Trade Center emergency. Ielpi's mission now is to preserve ground zero, and he said he is bewildered and frustrated by the hurry to "sanitize the site, get the job done, and move on."

Many members of the Coalition of 9/11 Families in New York will wear yellow garments and ribbons at an anniversary ceremony on Thursday to protest the architect's rendering of a transportation hub, rather than memorial space, at the buildings' bedrock.

"I'm disappointed President Bush isn't coming, because I'd like to tell him we need to preserve the area where he and his wife stood and cried with us last year," Ielpi said.

Bush traveled on Sept. 11, 2002, to all three terrorism sites and gave a speech at Ellis Island, with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop. This year, the White House announced he will remain in Washington and attend a prayer service at St. John's Church at Lafayette Park, lead a moment of silence at the White House, and visit wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Organizers expect 300 family members to participate in a ceremony in Boston's Public Garden, near the Newbury Street gate, where they will lay flowers on the footprint of a proposed memorial to the Massachusetts victims of Sept. 11 and read the 193 names.

"Last year, we had a very pomp-and-circumstance-heavy day," said Linda Plazonja, executive director of the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund. "This year, families wanted something that was more reflective and contemplative."

In 1983, the Kennedy family requested an end to annual ceremonies in Dallas on Nov. 22. This year, anticipating both intense media attention and many pilgrims in Dealey Plaza, the Sixth Floor Museum will hold a symposium on Kennedy's legacy and the Dallas Symphony will perform the city premiere of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass," commissioned by the family for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington.

"It's not that we want to celebrate the day," said West, who acknowledges that for many people in Dallas, Nov. 22 is "still the worst memory ever."

"But regardless of anything we do, people will come at 12:30 and stand silent for two or three minutes," he said. "It's the power of the place."

Message board
Share your thoughts on the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months