July 15, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 306
Fresh Kill And Racers Of Vigilance

Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

GROUND ZERO, New York City, July 15--This morning the final ceremony at the Fresh Kill Landfill in Staten Island will close the search for the dead.

  Fresh Kill, a sanitation site on Staten Island, is the depository where over 1.7 million tons of debris has been sifted and preened for over ten months to find any remains or artifacts that might lead to the identification of victims of the Nine Eleven Terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.  It marks the end of the new beginning...the final taps in salute of well over a thousand who vanished without a trace on September 11, 2001.

        Part of the final closure of open wounds of that tragic event was a special race held yesterday morning at Ground Zero.   My wife and I attended it with our younger daughter, a federal special agent who works on a task force with NYPD officers.   It was a three-mile race in honor of the fallen NYPD officers who gave their lives on the Second Tuesday in September.  It started at 10:13 a.m., a significant time for any police officer.
          10:13 is the code signaling an officer is down, or in dire trouble. It alerts all other police officers to come to the rescue of a fallen brother or sister.

         Our daughter ran in the race representing her task force, a combination of federal, state and local NYPD offices.   She had crawled through the rubble of Nine Eleven in search of bodies, survivors, hoping to find any officer or civilian who had fallen victim to the 10:13 call that rang solemnly on Nine Eleven, and still rings today for those who haven't been found.   The race was one small way to let the departed know their memories live on despite the presence of their remains.

          The race was a small event by normal running standards in New York.  Usually, such races draw hundreds of runners.  But this was a "private affair," for police and their families, not a public event.   
          There was a solemn memorial before the race for the fallen, a time for reflection and prayers.  

      Commissioner Ray Kelly with runners

     The police Honor Guard presented the flags before the race next to Ground Zero, on the West Side Highway.  
          Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was on hand and stood with the racers, part of the team of dedicated public servants who daily risk their lives for others.   Racers comprised all sizes and shapes, including some officers pushing their children in strollers before them as they ran.   There were young and old, age groups from under thirty to over sixty.   There were fit and lean runners, and some whose flesh jiggled and joggled as they ran.
         One retired officer yelled as he passed the finish line near the front of the pack:  "I'm sixty!"

        On the sidelines children sat on fathers' shoulders, watching the event.  One little boy wore a homemade paper crown, with salutes written on it to victims of Nine Eleven.  Another little boy played with a dog on a leash, seemingly oblivious to the solemnity of the event, but assuredly aware of its significance to his family.   I wondered if he might have lost a father, mother, uncle, grandfather, but preferred not to ask, not wanting to stir up memories or sadness that might have been resolved, or at least compartmentalized.
         The National Anthem was sung by an officer as the hundreds of officers, agents, and friends saluted or placed their hands over their hearts.   There was a stillness in the air, as though Ground Zero sucked in a deep breath and held it until the salute was finished.
         Then, at exactly 10:13, the race horn blasted, and the runners sprinted as one human body of the living, running for the dead.
         Along the race path, up West Side Highway, old tattered flags still flapped in the wind, Sentinels of Vigilance over Ground Zero.   They were small flags, taped to light posts.   One's colors had faded from the sun and rain, and its leading edge was frayed from flapping and snapping over the past ten months.

       Another was stuck in the ground at the base of a flagpole bearing the various flags of New York and America and law enforcement.  It too was tattered and weathered, leathery like the faces of the workers who spent nearly a year sifting through the debris in hopes of finding some positive identification for those pulverized by the horrendous collapse of the building that turned ash to ash.
         A chain link fence held the faded, sun-worn laminated posters of various police, fire personnel and civilians who had been lost in the disaster.  The headlines on all of them blared out the words:  "REMEMBER ME!"

        Old fragments of flowers, long ago desiccated by the weathering of time, were weaved in the chain link.   A few fresh red, white and blue ribbons stood out, symbols that loved ones returned to the site to freshen the memories, to not give up the final Hope that their memories would die in time as their bodies had on September 11.
        My wife and I had walked the final walk up West Side Highway with police and firemen and friends, family and loved ones when Ground Zero was officially closed on May 30.   People lined the streets applauding the Heroes and remembering the fallen.  But today there were no audiences, no spectators.   Just an empty ribbon of black asphalt bearing the footprints of the runners who were giving their respects to their brothers and sisters.

       I stood at the finish line shooting pictures of various faces of those crossing it, capturing the first and second NYPD officer to finish, the first woman finishing, and then as many of the exhausted, sweating, determined faces as possible I could capture.   The runners not only could see the finish line as they approached, but also the gaping hole where the Twin Towers had once speared nearly a quarter mile into the sky, now, a blank wall of empty space, a repository of memories of men and women who gave everything for others.

      I thought about my day at Ground Zero, when the buildings were falling around me, the debris, the horror, the choking silence of soot blanketing everything in a ghostly pall, and the silent Voices ringing out of the aftermath, echoing as though from a tomb.

       I thought about seeing the Sentinels of Vigilance rising up from the ash, swirling in the aftermath of the Beast of Terror's visit to our land, and how strong those spirits were, how defiant they posed even as the tongues of fire licked at the remains of the ruins.

     I saw them again yesterday morning.  They were running with the runners, their shadows unseen, their footsteps unheard.  They were whispering the words of Vigilance in all the ears of those who had come to pay honor to them--"Courage."   "Conviction."  "Right Action."
      I head them.  I still hear them.
      "Courage."  "Conviction."  "Right Action."                                                                                              


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