x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

9/11 remembered by those who were there: 'They say time heals. I'm not so sure'

Neighbours who volunteered to help in the 9/11 aftermath meet every year in reunion, and to recall the day when everything changed..

NEW YORK // Brian Barasky was busy yesterday. Every year since 2001, the 39-year-old proprietor of a neighbourhood bar in lower Manhattan has organised a barbecue on September 11 on the street outside. The food is free, the clientele sometimes sombre, sometimes loud.

Ten years ago, the people who gather here were thrown together in a desperate rescue bid.

They were policemen, soldiers, firefighters and medics, many of whom have since retired. Like Mr Barasky, they were also residents of the neighbourhood who volunteered their services and their efforts in those dark days after the terrorist attacks.

On September 11, 2001, Mr Barasky worked a full day to help emergency workers at Ground Zero, five blocks away.

Along with other volunteers he built wooden raisers to enable cranes and fire engines to navigate rubble-strewn streets.

Covered in the same dust that settled all over the neighbourhood and killed many of the trees on his street, he collapsed exhausted in bed that evening in his apartment over his Reade Street Pub and Kitchen in Tribeca.

It would be more than two months before electricity was restored to his street.

The next day Mr Barasky did it again, this time joining a bucket brigade, clearing debris at Ground Zero and putting it in five-gallon containers that were passed down a line of volunteers away from the site. People worked until they tired and the next in line would start digging.

The third day he opened his bar, firing up a small generator to provide power. His clients were emergency workers from all over the US, as well as locals who stayed to help out - the same people who now return here year after year on September 11.

The annual barbecue is an opportunity for the rescuers of September 11 to renew relationships that were forged by an inferno. It is also an occasion simply to remember.

New York was full of remembrance yesterday. Commemorations, whether expressed in words, music or pictures, abounded. Dancers took to public squares in eulogy. Swimmers took to the waters of the Hudson River for charity.

Memory also brings people together in Mr Barasky's pub. "It's a tradition now," said Robert Mulero, a retired New York state official and a neighbourhood resident. "It's being able to talk to people who went through the same experience."

Mr Mulero lost a 26-year-old relative, Maria Ramirez, that day. She died, not in the World Trade Center but in a nearby building where she was trapped in an lift. In 2006, at one of the annual barbecues, Mr Mulero met the Pennsylvania firefighter who pulled out Maria's body. The two now stay in touch every year.

"They say time heals," Mr Mulero said. "I'm not sure it will in this case."

But though "it doesn't get easier", Mr Barasky said those who gather every year also "try to have a bit of fun". "Everything changed," said Mr Barasky. "Literally. A bright, clear day went from light to night."

Some things, he said, changed for the better. The residents of the neighbourhood were closer now.

"We all went though the same thing together. We suffered together, and in the months after, when we had no electricity, we sat in the middle of the street, in the glare of some car's headlights, and drank together."

There are other, less agreeable changes. Anyone driving into Lower Manhattan in the past few days would have encountered numerous police checkpoints along Canal Street, which bisects the island.

For Benny, 63, Reade Street Pub's Irish barman who lived in the city for 40 years, it meant getting to work on Saturday from New Jersey took two hours instead of one. Yesterday, he parked in Midtown Manhattan rather than try to drive all the way.

Amid the reminders yesterday that their lives had been forever transformed by the events of ten years ago, those gathered at the Reade Street Pub easily managed to laugh.

Katia, 30, Reade's French waitress, was the butt of jokes that stemmed from France's opposition to the US invasion of Iraq and from the cliche that the French prefer capitulation to resistance. "You are French," said one octogenarian wag at the bar. "I surrender."

New York may have changed irrevocably on 9/11 and the US along with it, but New Yorkers remain New Yorkers. Joggers were still out in force on the riverfront yesterday, and street vendors were flogging their wares.

The official memorial, still far from completion, reflects the impulse to both remember and move on, or back, to normality. With space set aside strictly for commemoration, the two waterfalls in the footsteps of the two towers seem to pour water down an abyss at their heart. A museum is being built next to them.

But towering over them, 1 World Trade Center - known to locals as Freedom Tower, which will be the tallest in the city - will eventually be accompanied by numbers 2, 3, and 4. These are all commercial buildings. New York, the suggestion is, will rebuild and become again what it was, only more so.

Meanwhile, for Mr Barasky, the day has changed. On September 11 last year, his youngest son, Joseph was born. Yesterday, for the first time, Mr Barasky not only remembered 9/11, but celebrated his son's birthday.

okarmi@thenational.ae