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A solitary day at ground zero

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NEW YORK — In the quiet before dawn, before it becomes a buzzing construction zone, tourist magnet and 16-acre plain of mourning and reflection, there is only the glow at ground zero.

The patch of land that for years held the World Trade Center, then for months its mangled ruins, is bathed before sunrise by the soft white aura of dozens of stadium lights.

It is just yards from this peaceful place, from the glow, that Frank Hidrio starts work at 6 a.m. He guards a loading dock for One Liberty Plaza, and every morning he looks across Church Street and waits for the people to come.

"They're going to work, and they stop for a moment, maybe say a prayer," he says. "You can see the tears in their eyes. So much time later, they still have tears in their eyes."

So much time later. Two years later, and ground zero is still a place teeming with emotions — sometimes conflicting, always powerful. Watch for just one day, sunrise to sunset, and the sorrow and hope of the place unfold.

Morning brings the pit to life. Trucks chug around, up and down the ramp that connects the floor of the site to the rest of the world, linking ground zero to ground level.

Renewal and progress are clear: Workers mill around in the pit's northwest corner, planned home for a soaring, 1,776-foot tower. Along the east wall is a skeletal shed that will house a PATH commuter train terminal.

By 9 a.m., the workers are watched by hundreds of people. Some are lower Manhattan workers who are on their way to their offices and still find it difficult to turn away, or who just refuse to.

But most are tourists who congregate along two sides of the site — Church Street to the east, where a fence bears the names of the nearly 2,800 people who died here, and Liberty Street to the south, which offers a more complete view.

It is along Liberty Street that Bill Brand, who visits New York often from California, stands behind his 11-year-old son, Alex, who is seeing the site for the first time. Alex wants to know what part of it was the World Trade Center.

So the father places one hand on each side of his son's head and gently turns it in a sweeping motion, left to right. He wants to explain to the boy that the whole panorama, all of it, represents destruction.

"It's so difficult to explain to your children what isn't there," the father says later. "Politics, history and compassion all come into it. But they can't get past why this happened."

Behind them is a long, gray wall that has become a World Trade Center bulletin board. Visitors have nearly filled it up with messages to the dead, words of encouragement for victims' families and for the nation, profanity directed at terrorists.

In almost the same spot, just after lunch, Juan Fonseca of Fort Washington, Md., kneels with his 11-year-old daughter, Sandra Maria, and finds a square foot of precious open space on the wall. He traces around her outstretched left hand.

He hands his daughter the pen. Inside the outline she writes the date, then a message: "I love New York City very much."

Every day, the perimeter of what once was the trade center connects hundreds of people who work nearby — some for a paycheck, some for tourists' cash, some without homes who lay down caps and hope for pocket change.

Some are the vendors who set up tables each day on Dey Street, just off the east side of the site. They do not give their names. They are here to make money.

One sells videotapes of the attack. Another sells postcard images from Sept. 11. You can buy a shot of the second plane nearing its target, or the resulting fireball, or the collapse of either tower — any of them, for 50 cents a pop.

Another is Harry Roland, 49, who says he was a World Trade Center tour guide. Now he spends his days wandering the streets around the site, clutching pictures of the towers and a black plastic bag to take donations.

He is something of a professor of ground zero, and draws crowds of dozens of people while he recites World Trade Center facts — the number of buildings in the complex (seven), the height of the towers (1,350 feet).

"Know the facts, know the facts," he says this afternoon, and every afternoon. "This is history. Don't let it be a mystery."

And another is Claire Ramirez, who tends bar at the Millenium Hilton Hotel. Behind her, behind the neatly arranged bottles of gin and vodka and bourbon, is a huge window, floor to ceiling, looking directly into ground zero.

It is here, in the hotel bar on the third floor, that Ramirez's customers sip drinks in the early afternoon and stare out at the pit. Sometimes they tell her what they are thinking.

"They sometimes don't believe it, what's out there," she says. "It's so many different feelings. But I think when something new goes up there, that will take away a lot of the hurt. People will finally move on."

Clear across the site, past its western face, is the World Financial Center. In its Winter Garden, heavily damaged in the attack but since restored, people line up along a glass wall, in air-conditioned comfort, to watch ground zero.

It is here that Annemarie Maley finds herself in the late afternoon. She is a 35-year-old computer trainer from Hoboken, N.J., just across the Hudson River, and she watched the towers fall from there on Sept. 11, 2001.

She saw the site up close once that autumn, "when the jagged building pieces were up." She has stayed away since then, but she had business in downtown Manhattan today, and figured she would have a look.

Now she spends long minutes motionless, just staring out, sunglasses pushed up on her red hair and a blue umbrella tucked under her left arm. She opens her mouth to explain what she is feeling, then pauses and starts to softly cry.

"I wonder if the people who work down here are used to this yet," she says. "Because I'm not."

The visitors and the tourists and the people with offices nearby come and go. But the dwellers of 125 Cedar St., the closest residential building to the World Trade Center site, cannot look away.

The force of the towers' collapse shattered the north-facing windows of the modest 12-story building. It turned residents into nomads, loft apartments into toxin-filled chemistry labs.

Andy Jurinko was one of those residents, and moved back months later. And it is here, inside his renovated Apartment 3-N, that he stands at dusk, looking out a window with northern exposure.

In the background, not far away and in full view, is the site. In the foreground are the tourists on Liberty Street — milling around, snapping photos, watching a man create spray-paint images of the towers on wooden boards.

Jurinko curses. "All the remorse has faded," he says. "It faded six, nine months ago. Those are just a bunch of morbid curiosity-seekers. It's the lowest common denominator. It's a carnival."

He lowers his blinds. He had them installed several months ago as a barrier between himself and the crowds he detests and as a filter to keep out the lights that go up at night around what used to be the World Trade Center.

The sun is setting — burning orange and sinking behind the Hudson River to the west. Gradually, the tourists leave their last somber notes, and one sets a single flower in the fence along Church Street.

Before long, the 16 acres will belong again to the construction workers and security guards who work the late shift. Some will gaze into the pit and think, the way thousands of visitors have since sunrise.

It is here, at the close of another day between the horrible destruction and the slow rebirth, that the stadium lights begin to burn. Soon, the glow will return to ground zero.