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Remembrance and renewal at the 9/11 Plaza

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On Aug. 31, 2001, while lying on my back on the World Trade Center plaza, I photographed my three oldest children with the Twin Towers behind them. Days later, mangled steel, ashes and pulverized concrete filled the plaza, and our hotel two blocks away became a triage center.

I took a picture from the same spot this summer, but with the new One World Trade Center soaring and shining behind my two sons. Risen from destruction, One WTC is again New York City's tallest building at 105 stories. Steelworkers fitted beams for its roof three weeks ago, and an antenna will extend its reach to 1,776 feet (representing the year 1776), making it again the western hemisphere's tallest building.

Through my lens, I saw a triumph of the human spirit. The terrorists sought to engender fear, but the new tower and the surrounding 9/11 Memorial and plaza instead exhibited remembrance, resilience, resolve and renewal.

At the Memorial museum, a 9-foot fiberglass Statue of Liberty epitomizes the triumph's beginnings. Within 48 hours after 9/11, the replica appeared outside a Manhattan firehouse that lost 15 men at Ground Zero. As days passed, mourners, firemen, tourists and others draped it with almost 800 items, each telling a story.

Consider them: miniature American flags, victims' photographs, money, rosary beads, airline wing pins, angels, and fire and police patches from around the world. One note expresses the loss of a then-2-year-old boy and his newborn twin siblings, "Daddy, we miss you!"

The small Lady Liberty displays grief and tributes, while at the same time defiantly reaffirming the imagery of the actual Statue of Liberty across the bay — a forward-looking faith in freedom and a new start.

Two one-acre reflecting pools now settle deep into the Twin Towers' square footprints. Titled, "Reflecting Absence," the pools are fed on all sides by dramatic 30-foot waterfalls. In each pool's center, the water drops again into voids, representing the 2,983 victims of the 9/11 and 1993 terrorist attacks.

Their names are engraved in bronze panels surrounding the pools. Instead of alphabetical listings, they are grouped by "meaningful adjacencies." Co-workers, flight crews and firefighter squads are engraved together, as are spouses, fiances, family members and friends, even if they didn't work together.

Victor Wald is listed next to Harry Ramos, a man Victor barely knew. Victor had struggled descending the south tower's staircase and stopped to wait for help around the 55th floor. Many passed by before Harry stopped to aid the stranger from another company. Harry, a modern Good Samaritan, was overheard saying, "I'm not going to leave you."

Several survivors reported that Harry helped Victor down until Harry could also go no further. Victor's wife asked that his name be inscribed next to Harry's because he "died alongside of him."

Hundreds of oak trees now replace the plaza's decimation with a living, vibrant green canopy. Within the forest, a pear tree stands unique and unforgettable. Several weeks after 9/11, recovery workers discovered its 8-foot charred stump buried in the Ground Zero rubble.

The aptly-named "Survivor Tree" sprouted new buds and branches the next spring at a Bronx nursery. Years later, thick branches rose from the trunk until a severe storm uprooted the tree in March 2010. Replanted, it recovered again and then triumphantly returned to the WTC plaza eight months later. New Yorkers hailed its abundant white blossoms in 2011's early spring.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Irene's tropical winds threatened its life again in August 2011, just two weeks before the Memorial opened on 9/11's 10-year anniversary. The Survivor Tree survived and thrived once more.

During our Memorial visit, my sons and I noticed a group informally gather around three uniformed Marines who were swearing one into the service. We learned that the inductee had recently graduated from NYU, and despite other career opportunities, he joined the Marines. Motivated by the WTC attacks, the New Yorker told us he volunteered to "defend freedom" and asked to be sworn-in on the plaza.

One WTC rebuilt, Lady Liberty adorned, twin pools of reflection, the plaza forested, the Survivor Tree revived and the Marine volunteer: each symbolizes for us remembrance, resilience, resolve and renewal after tragedy – the best of the human spirit.

Richard W. Sheffield is a business lawyer and a member of the Provo school board. He studies and writes about how we and our children learn and grow most, using the theme "Light 2 Life." He can be reached at RSheffield@FSLaw.com