Unnoticed by all but an observant few, a blackbird has been busily building a nest with twigs and grass and bits of plastic at the 9/11 memorial, even as the ironworkers have been no less busily erecting the new tower there with steel.
Her construction work in a tree at the edge of the south reflecting pool now seemingly done, the blackbird was settled upon the result early yesterday afternoon as her fellow builders on the other side of the memorial prepared to make One World Trade Center surpass the height of the Empire State Building.
Two steel columns lay ready at the new tower’s base, both emblazoned with “1271 Ft.” in big white letters, or 21 feet higher than the main structure of the iconic skyscraper uptown. A cop who had trained with SEAL Team 6 inscribed other numbers on the steel with a white marker.
The second inscribed date is largely forgotten by everybody save special forces operators and the families of the dead, in particular the widows, four of whom were pregnant when their husbands perished in the helicopter crash.
The first inscribed date is viewed as an anniversary of historic importance by almost everybody, most vocally by political operators of the commander in chief who ordered the raid that killed the murderous mastermind of 9/11.
President Obama came to New York after the successful attack on bin Laden to lay a wreath at the memorial. He also visited the firehouse that serves as the quarters of Engine 54 and Ladder 4 and Battalion 9; a house that lost 15 members on 9/11. Firefighters who had not thought especially highly of him before the raid welcomed him with new respect. The officers seemed to feel a particular comradeship.
“Now he knows what it is to send men into harm’s way,” noted battalion chief Jack Joyce.
Too bad Obama, or at least his political operators, did not also learn a time-honored code among firefighters as to when a commander should strive to take credit for what those men do in harm’s way.
“Never,” an FDNY commander said yesterday.
Nobody can rightly dispute that the president ordered the raid at great political risk, but that is nothing compared with what SEALs risked and what those 22 lost three months after bin Laden was killed. A private acknowledgement of that sacrifice came as the cop who made the inscription on the column emailed a photo of it to the father of a fallen SEAL.
“It’s a just tribute to our son … and all the others,” the father emailed in reply.
As a work crew stood ready to hoist the first of the columns yesterday, a man in a hard hat went over to the chain-link fence separating the site from the public grounds of the memorial and passed a small rectangular scrap of new tower steel to a 10-year-old visitor from the Netherlands named Koen Hermans. The boy was only 2 weeks old at the time of the attack, and what seems so recent to some of us is history to him. He could recite the particulars at his mother’s prompting.
“Al Qaeda,” he said when Ellice Hermans asked who had killed thousands where he now stood.
“Osama bin Laden,” he said when asked the name of the mastermind.
He stood with a bit of now-treasured steel in his palm as the crane’s cable went taut and began to hoist the first of the columns. Among the ironworkers waiting to guide it into place and bolt it at the top was 23-year-old Tim Conboy. His 21-year-old brother, Matt Conboy, is with the Army and presently being deployed to Afghanistan and the decade-old war where our best young people continue to face hazards far beyond the political. Their father, FDNY Lt. Mickey Conboy, was at that moment on duty as a fire officer in the Bronx, only the next alarm away from once more leading his firefighters into mortal danger—and certain to give any credit only to them. He lost friends as close as brothers on 9/11. He is more than proud of his boys.
“They’re doing good for themselves,” he says.
As viewed through the branches of the swamp oak where the blackbird would soon be hatching her own young, the rising column looked smaller and smaller, until it appeared not much bigger than the twigs she had used to build her nest. Her mate was perched two trees away, ready to risk all to protect the nest. Blackbirds have been known to take on creatures as large as a horse if they sense a threat.
But a blackbird has none of the manifest fierceness of an American eagle, and the mate went all but unnoticed, even as he swooped down into the huge memorial pool. He drank and splashed for a moment in the sparkling water and then ascended, winging up over the edge bearing the names of those who were aboard United Airlines Flight 175 when it hit the South Tower. They included three who were not much more than nestlings: 3-year-olds David Brandhorst and Christine Hanson, and 4-year-old Julian McCourt. The hijackers must have seen them in the boarding area and let them just toddle onto the plane and to their deaths.
The male blackbird resumed his perch, his inky feathers drying in the bright sun as he continued his vigil. The female remained in the nest from which new life would soon rise. The youngsters of Flight 175 would no doubt have delighted in the hatching that is soon to come and in the insistent chirping of the newborns and in the fledglings’ first clumsy flights.
In the meantime, the sturdiness of the mother’s construction drew praise from the cop who had paused to inscribe the column and now continued a vigil of his own as the other builders continue erecting another 505 feet to the symbolic number 1776.
“It looks pretty well reinforced,” he said.