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St Paul’s Chapel – where I found the humanity of 9/11

Where were you when the Twin Towers came down?

I was in the car with my dad and my sister. We were stuck in traffic on the way home from high school. We lived pretty far from school and the drive was generally narrated by whatever was on the radio that day. We didn’t quite understand why my dad was so insistent on listening to a talk show that afternoon until he linked what we were hearing to our own personal experience.

We had been to New York the year before as part of an epic cross-country trip of the USA. We’d spent a fair amount of time there and had visited the World Trade Centre. I don’t remember if we had gone up the buildings exactly, but I remember very distinctly that we had bought the most gorgeous Winnie the Pooh porcelain figurines in the gift shop at the bottom of one of the towers. My dad picked his way through our memory and the reality that was echoing on the radio that day. When we finally got through traffic and home, we ran into the house to tell my mom, but she was sitting on the couch watching the news looking completely ashen. She was well aware. I don’t think we left the TV for even a minute that night. Watching the horror replay and taking in whatever detail was offered. I remember feeling sad and confused and overwhelmed.

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When I was in New York, it was only natural for me to revisit the site to pay my respects for that which had happened a decade earlier. There’s a definite magnetism towards the actual site, mostly because of the buzz going on around it. It was still in the final phases of construction when I visited, but was interesting to see how architects had interpreted the event into physical developments. The large waterfalls flowing into the ground are impressive, but to be totally honest, I didn’t feel any representation of emotion here. There was no connection for me. It was only made worse on the way out of the memorial when we had to pass through a souvenir shop to exit. It was crude and I was indignant at the fact that I could purchase a souvenir for having visited this place of loss.

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It was by absolute chance that we stumbled across St Paul’s Chapel adjacent to the memorial site. This tiny church dating back over two hundred years had somehow managed to survive the collapsing building and debris around it during the trauma of 9/11. Without even as much as a broken window! It’s dwarfed by its surrounds and was welcoming of everybody who chose to venture inside.

The church played a major role in the months following the removal of the mangle of rubble, and people and a universe of lost things. It housed, fed, and cared for any firemen, policemen, emergency rescue works and volunteers. The evidence of relatives searching for their loved ones is still pinned to the pews and structures inside, while a rudimentary exhibition details the day and its aftermath. Here is where I found the humanity I was look for.

The sadness conveyed through photos and letters was so real here. It clarified just how painful this process had been for the city and how important this tiny little site was. Despite the fact that this church is in fact what will become the most important relic of that year for New York over the new few decades in my opinion, it was relatively empty. We walked in and around without having to wait or be shoved or even expected to give anything in return. This was a place to convey the sorrow that New York had felt when its twins fell, and it did that more than I can describe. It was a moving experience, something to change perspective.

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This is still an active church though. There was an orchestra practicing when we were inside. Services are still held weekly and memorial services are held here too for those lives lost in the 9/11 attacks. Visitors are welcome throughout the day here and I would strongly advise you visit this site if you’re making your way to the zone surrounding the modern day 9/11 memorial.

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Travel & food blogger helping adventurous South Africans find their next escape.

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