How we will “go on”

By Gabrielle A. Wright

Whizzing By 9-11-12 Photo by Gabrielle A. Wright

At 8:46 am, scores of people whiz through Zuccotti Park and past the new World Trade Center without pausing for a moment of silence. 59 year old 9/11 survivor, Peter Bitwinski wonders what it means for the future of how 9/11 is remembered.

Amidst the rush of people passing by, Bitwinski stands focused on the new building. He stands perfectly still, hands crossed and his face angled up at the deep blue sea of memory towering before him.

As the sun moves through the buildings, it reflects the thin layer of moisture on his calm face.

When asked what shape he thinks reflecting on 9/11 will take in years to come, he explains that he fears that those who don’t feel affected by the attacks won’t cradle the memory. He thinks “those” are younger generations.

“Just look around,” he said. “No one is even stopping for the moment of silence. A tower is going to fall in one minute.”

With his finger pointed to the sky, he closes his eyes and holds still. People still pass by.

Brooke Berndston, a 25 year old Oxford University graduate student from Chicago, IL says she understands Bitwinski’s sentiments. Berndston recalls a teacher telling her that a yearly project in which elementary students would write what they remembered about 9/11 illustrated vivid details in the years that immediately followed the attacks. But by the time 2005 rolled around, the teacher had to turn the journal assignment to a history lesson.

Brooke Berndston, a 25 year old Philosophy student at Oxford University, believes that as the years go by, it becomes more difficult for new generations to empathize with tragic events. Photo courtesy of Brooke Berndston.

“Those kids were detached,” she said. “Consider this, when you walk through a World War II memorial, you might understand what soldiers and families went through, but do you feel it? It’s difficult to empathize with an event that becomes more and more abstract as the years go by.”

At Tribute WTC, a non-profit organization which works to link visitors with people who experienced the attacks of 9/11, Bitwinski leads tours. On these tours, he shares his memories from 9/11 to keep the memory tangible and accessible to visitors. The story he shares with visitors is that he worked two-thirds of the way up One World Trade Center.

He remembers feeling the crash, feeling the heat, and running down what seemed like an endless flight of stairs. He remembers running for his life and that 15 minutes and five blocks after evacuating the building, the first tower collapsed.

“After I ran down the street about five blocks, the building fell.” – Peter Bitwinski. Photo by Gabrielle A. Wright.

Visibly moved, Bitwinski looked down at his hands. Nail beds white with pressure, it became obvious that as the calm man in a cool cadet blue shirt told his story, he channeled tension through his hands. Each of his fingers pooled with a fleshy pink as he massaged out wrinkles and woe.

Suddenly lifted, he said, “You begin to appreciate life when you get older. You just want to take time and just,” he trailed off into a deep swallow and looking up at the building again.

“I am just so thankful to be here,” he continues. “I come back to this spot every year because I’m thankful.”

Bitwinski hopes that the triangular park between the new buildings will not become a “playground” for young people that may feel detached from the events of 9/11. He hopes that, “it doesn’t become a form of entertainment…recognized as an event” such as Memorial Day.

“Keep the peace, pause and be silent,” he says. “Where younger people who may not feel a connection to the attacks goof around or walk through here without stopping is where I saw people plunge to their death.”

One thing Bitwinski hopes will continue is the recognition of people who died. He says he feels honored to show respect, and blessed that during the memorial service, his name is not called.

“I’m so blessed.” – Peter Bitwinski on being a 9/11 survivor. Photo by Gabrielle A. Wright.

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