Ground Zero

Returning to the place where the towers once stood

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

NEW YORK - Every day, thousands walk the metal fence and read the names etched on a black wall, forced heroes engraved into history.

They walk around the abysmal and vast space once known as the World Trade Center Plaza, seven buildings including the Twin Towers, and stare in disbelief at the gaping wound.

Their attention is caught every few minutes by the resounding voice of Harry Rowan, a man who makes a living by telling the story of Sept. 11, 2001, a catastrophe that took 2,973 lives.

"History, don't let it be a mystery! Learn the facts!" chants Rowan, who lives in Jersey City, N.J., in his raspy voice. His deep eyes, surrounded by dark skin slick from the humidity of a July afternoon, glare with intensity at anyone who listens.

Rowan stands with his back to Ground Zero on Church Street in lower Manhattan and holds a binder of Sept. 11 photos covered with sheet protectors. A clear plastic bottle, suspended around his neck by a lanyard that reads "New York," is filled with bills and coins collected during the day.

Rowan has been at the area since Sept. 14, 2001, when he started educating the rescue workers at the ruins of the World Trade Center, he said.

Five years later, Rowan continues his mission of informing the public by spending hours a day detailing facts to the public, earning a buck in exchange for his words.

"I basically do this 365 days of the year because I want to educate the people," he said. "No one pays me to do it but I get a smile when I see people like this."

He turns to the crowd which came to visit this massive grave site and begins to speak, as if preaching the word of Sept. 11.

"It's free, learn the facts!" he shouts and starts to pace, searching for the welcoming ear.

Whether Rowan spends countless hours each day to make a crowd smile or to support himself through donations is unimportant to these listeners. To them, they are receiving an unforgettable lesson in history.

Learn the facts

A family of five stops to hear Rowan's speech and gives him 15 minutes and $5 before heading off to Wall Street, just blocks away.

"Which way did the airplanes come from?" asks someone in the crowd.

"That is the No. 1 question asked. Watch this. The 767s to San Francisco flew west to the Hudson River and came down the river, which runs north to south," Rowan says and points to the river behind him.

"The first plane comes from the north, staying low to the radar of our three major airports. No one knows about it when the first plane hits the north tower," he says and points to a map. "They start to empty out the day care center and get people off the trains. Sixteen minutes later, the second plane hits the south tower."

Rowan, who at the time was across the river in New Jersey, witnessed the floors pancaking down from where he was standing.

"Boom, boom, boom they went. (The smoke) came half way out to the river," he said. "The second tower falls first. Now you're looking at the north tower and thinking, 'Oh, my God.' "

He pulls out an aerial view picture taken after the tower had fallen to validate his words.

"A Queens (N.Y. borough) cop that comes by here told me that if anyone ever argues with me, show them his picture taken from a helicopter," he says. "I'm just here to tell the facts."

Mihelyn Johnson, who was in Boston attending the University of Massachusetts during the Sept. 11 events, stares at Rowan before he addresses her.

"Welcome to New York. Where are you from?" he asks. Johnson replies she's from the Bronx.

"You're a New Yorker. How many buildings were at the World Trade Center Plaza?" he asks and offers little time to answer. "There were seven buildings, not two."

Behind the metal fence, a large cross made of the towers' beams sits in remembrance on a concrete base, something drapes over one of the arms.

"They were searching for survivors, found 37 of which 14 are firemen, and the cross was found just like that," he says. "The piece hanging is not cloth, it's not plastic, not duct tape and it doesn't move in the breeze.

"It's metal, hard and stuck on," he continues. "Just like that. See the scratch marks? That's not graffiti, it's the name of the construction workers who signed it. Learn the facts."

Don't talk about it

The people who live here know that feeling of despair all too well.

Officer Nicole Smith, who on Sept. 11, 2001, was working at the Manhattan coroner's office, prefers not to awaken the memories that lie dormant, not buried.

"I don't want to talk about it. It's nothing I want to remember," she says bluntly while at Ground Zero.

Another officer, who was working uptown when the planes crashed, had little to say about Sept. 11.

"I know a guy that was buried here and I know some people who are in therapy," he says as he stands at the corner of Liberty and Church streets. Leaning against a police car with his arms folded, he turns his head and says under his breath, "It's unfortunate."

Johnson compares the event to a dream, seeing people jumping out of windows and unforgettable images in newspapers. Until, she says, she realized people of her church were inside the towers.

"That's when it smacked me in the face," she said.

On these streets, which once towered with silver buildings that reached toward the heavens, it is impossible to not touch the mournfulness still alive today. Consequently, few people want to discuss the day that caused infinite hurt. Except for Rowan.

"Sometimes I look people in the eye and ask them, 'Don't think this is history? Ask your parents,' " he says. "Every day you close your eyes there is another day in history. Sept. 11 should never be forgotten. It's lessons learned, not lessons burned.

"History, don't let it be a mystery . . . " he shouts as he turns away.

Reach Andrea E. Garcia at 427-6953 or