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Sun, 22 Dec 2002, 11:17 AM

Ground Zero Twin Tower Site
By Dwight Drum

The Second Year

I choose to focus on stock car and drag racing and not necessarily in that order. I wanted to share my words about moments in New York City recently with the fans of Fast News. We are all race fans and we are also fortunate to know freedom.

While in New York City recently for the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Champions dinner two events topped my agenda…visiting "Ground Zero" the site of the Twin Tower disaster and then attending dinner at Sardi's presented by Winston for NASCAR, the national champion team and motorsports media.

My first move outside my hotel room was to get a taxi and get to Ground Zero. The cab driver was entertaining and drove a scenic way along the river. As we battled traffic I asked him where he was on September 11, 2001…His memory was quick. He had just taken a fare to that area 10 minutes before the crash of the second jet into the second tower and was returning. "I saw this giant cloud of dust and people running," he said. "I turned around fast and got out of there."

The cab driver dropped me at a tall fence about noon and as requested he showed me directions to Broadway for a choice of restaurants later. At the site I instantly recognized buildings in the distance and scanned the borders of this sorrowful excavation. TV cameras have us accustomed to looking down into this vast deep hole in the city. I'm about six feet tall and all I could see was the far side of the big hole. Unless you are about 20 feet tall you'd see the same.

Many joined me in walking up to the protective fence to gaze outward. Buildings all around the edge of Ground Zero were in various stages of repair. One tall building was draped in protective fabric to facilitate a safe cleanup and restoration. As I stood at the Ground Zero and surveyed more of the horizon, my eyes absorbed the enormity of this renowned piece of urban real estate. After a few moments my ears searched for the noises of the city.

Sometimes it's not what you hear, but what you don't hear. In the big city, street and pedestrian noise is constant, but here at Ground Zero human noise was subdued. When people walked up to the fence, their faces hung and their lips tightened. Many wiped tears away while most fixed their sad eyes outward. As I observed dozens more slowly approach the grated fence I decided the most common reaction was silence. The sum of sorrow seemed to come in gigantic gasps from our recent past as memories struck the eyes and slowed the bodies.

You have to imagine the tall lines of the towers going up as they once pushed their architecture into the sky. You look up now and see that the sky has reclaimed that space. You have to imagine or remember. None of us should forget the enormity of the engineering feat to build, the immensity of the tragedy, the vast empty foundation of the two majestic towers, or the dedication of the frenzied cleanup.

In every life huge moments occur: births, deaths, marriages, divorces. Each of us takes a path in life via choices and circumstance and along the way we witness huge events of a complex modern life. My mother was in her twenties during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and years later we both watched the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Apollo moon landing on TV. Shortly after the 9/11 tragedy I called her and mentioned that she had witnessed many public events and disasters in her lifetime. I asked Arbutus Drum how 9/11 compared to all the others and she was swift to answer.

"They were nothing like this," Drum said. "I've never been through anything like this."

I tried to grasp and define the feeling within me as I stood at this sad fence overlooking this huge hole and chose to begin by comparing it to my past. I remember standing at the foot of Portage glacier near Anchorage, Alaska with my eyes fixed on the glowing blue of big ice thinking that I never expected to experience this panorama. The same feeling overwhelmed me at the Louvre Museum in Paris when I stared into the Mona Lisa's eyes. I never expected to see those eyes seem to stare back. I also never expected to shuffle my feet and sift my toes in the sand of so many beaches across the world. I simply never expected to bring my eyes to so many memorable vistas on our wonderful planet.

Ground Zero drew a feeling from me like these, only with a numbing edge brought by huge dark doses that lingered.

After about 30 minutes of snapping images and monitoring emotions, I walked toward Broadway in search of lunch. My hunger had dissipated, so instead I chose a brisk walking pace. As each block became more interesting and my feet grew accustomed to the pavement, I stepped on.

It seems that traffic and pedestrians practice a form of street-racing at every intersection. "Walk" and "Don't Walk" mean maybe. If pedestrians beat a vehicle to the street, they win and go. If vehicles beat pedestrians to the street, they win and go. They never seem to collide. Cab drivers play road domination between red lights and green lights and every inch of city streets is fair game. I wondered how so many Manhattan Yellow Cabs escape dents and look so shiny.

As I walked on my hunger returned, but my curiosity prevailed. I had trekked most of the way back to my hotel passing by vibrant Manhattan turf, industrious street vendors and numerous pedestrians at work and play. I pressed on until I reached Times Square where I ordered a fine lunch at the Heartland Brewery.

In an hour and a half I had walked from the big hole in the city at Ground Zero to Times Square. Along the way some of the emptiness inside me had shrunk. The lingering numbness gave way because I realized that so much of this great city still exists. I remembered too that most Americans know we must unite forever against evil.

In time construction will fill the big hole in the city and progress will again claim solid form. Perhaps then the healing within us all will banish horror and breed hope.

Later that night I was thankful to join celebrities and motorsports media for an exquisite dinner at Sardi's where the celebration was the NASCAR Winston Cup Champion Team. The freedom to speed on raceways, the freedom to watch and support our choice in sports, and the freedom to just walk our city streets meant more to me after that one day and night.

May freedom race on.

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