Thousands line up daily for ground zero tickets

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NEW YORK -- It is not a tourist attraction. But then again, it is, after a fashion. Because so many people want to see ground zero for themselves, to come to terms with its outsized horror, the city has built a viewing platform.

And as of this month, New York officials require tickets for access. That notion may grate on our sensibilities. It begins to sound like any other tourist attraction. It even sounds like a commercial activity.

In fact, there is nothing commercial about it: Tickets, meant to reduce huge lines at the site, are free, and many services and the cost of building this platform, and perhaps three others, are being donated.

Perhaps it helps to remember the nature of other places we travel to see. As tourists, we look at Civil War battlefields, cemeteries in Normandy and sites where entire cities were burned down.

The difference is, those places speak to long-ago events. Ground zero is of our own time.

• • •

I made my only other trip to lower Manhattan on Sept. 22, at a time when everything was ad hoc. We visitors walked and gawked where we could. We moved about in shock and were very quiet.

We could see debris that rose several stories high, and we could see the much-photographed shells of buildings.

Today it looks more like a construction site, largely because the remaining wreckage -- and there still is plenty -- is below ground. The World Trade Center had several basement levels.

From the platform, visitors can take the measure of this site: It covers 16 acres, and seeing that kind of wide-open space in Manhattan is eye-popping -- and chilling.

Then there are the buildings that surround it. Now it is possible to focus on the damage that was done to them, as well.

The viewing platform faces west across the site, and one of the first skyscrapers one sees is the American Express building, dotted with broken windows. Part of the exterior wall is gone, where a pedestrian walkway once connected the building to the World Trade Center.

At least these things are fixable, and American Express employees will be able to return here; the first phase of reoccupation is set for April.

To one side of the platform, one looks down on an entrance to the Millenium Hilton, which, because of its location facing the former World Trade Center, remains off-limits.

Damage is not so easy to see, but there were 500 broken windows and lots of contamination. Repair work is under way, but Hilton officials are not sure when the 561-room property will reopen.

The first piece of real estate one sees on walking up the ramp to the platform is the graveyard behind St. Paul's Chapel, a fitting reminder that we are viewing a mass grave.

Visitors do not look quite as stunned as they did nearly four months ago, but they are relatively quiet just the same.

People come from far and wide. The couple nearest me was from Honduras. A man I spoke to in the ticket line answered in French.

A woman from Tallahassee, Fla., in New York on business, said she couldn't be in New York without taking time to pay her respects.

Many leave a token behind. Among the handwritten messages on the platform: "Moscow is with New York."

And this: "I'm a Muslim, and I swear if I find who did this, I'll kill with my hands." It is signed "Mohamed from Egypt."

• • •

The viewing platform is at Fulton Street on Broadway, and it is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., but the tickets are distributed a few blocks away at a ticket kiosk at the South Street Seaport, at Pier 16.

The kiosk opens at 11 a.m. and hands out tickets each day for 30-minute time slots from noon the same day through the 11:30 a.m. slot the next day.

Only 250 tickets for each half-hour are issued, all on a first-come, first-served basis; visitors cannot request a time slot.

• • •

I arrived at the ticket line on Jan. 10, the first full day of ticket distribution, at 2:30 p.m., and, by then, tickets were being handed out for the 9:30 a.m. slot the following day.

That meant between 4,250 and 4,500 tickets had been distributed in three-and-a-half hours.

Until additional platforms are built, it seems the visitor who wants a same-day ticket would be wise to arrive before noon or 1 p.m.

Strolling to the pier, I walked past shops and restaurants, and it seemed likely that these places, among the hardest hit because of their lower Manhattan locations, may benefit commercially from this bit of extra pedestrian traffic.

Even with the ticketing procedure a few blocks away, the sidewalk at the platform entrance seemed incredibly crowded. No wonder city agencies took action.

Part of that clustering occurs because mourners have used the iron fence that surrounds St. Paul's Chapel for a massive display of tokens and written memorials, some well-weathered by now. Visitors continue to add layers to what remains a living wall of remembrance.

The chapel, built in the 1760s and modeled on St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, is closed to the public.

A sign advises that the chapel is focusing its ministry on rescue and excavation workers, who have access to sanctuary there.

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