Stairway for survivors or delay?


By Ronda Kaysen

The stairs that once connected the World Trade Center plaza to Vesey St. led hundreds of survivors to safety on 9/11 and have become a symbol of soaring, airy hope. However, some see those same steps as an obstruction to the rebuilding of the site, which means they may not survive much longer.

For the thousands of people who worked in the Twin Towers, elevators were their daily mode of transport, carrying workers up and down the 110-story towers. Yet on Sept. 11, 2001, stairs became the sole means of escape. As hundreds of people made their way out of the crumbling towers, the stairs leading from the elevated Austin J. Tobin Plaza to street level were the final steps to safety.

“There was no other way for me to get out of there. The plaza had collapsed in front of me,” said Tom Canavan, who believes he might have been the last survivor to descend those steps.

Canavan’s escape was narrow. Tower 2 shattered above him, burying him briefly. When he wrestled free from the rubble, he navigated a plaza that had become an impassable mess of wreckage and chaos. The Vesey St. staircase was his only remaining option. Moments after he reached the street below, Tower 1, where he had worked on the 47th floor, crumbled in a rain of fury.

Five years later, the 64-ft. tall Vesey St. staircase still stands as the only above-grade remnant of the original World Trade Center. A craggy, broken reminder of that day, it has been dubbed the “Survivors’ Stairway.”

“As an artifact, [the staircase] represents the time before the World Trade Center was attacked; it provides a link to that period of time as well as to the attacks themselves,” said Roberta Lane, an attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which declared the staircase one of the 11 most endangered sites in the United States. “We’re not saying it’s necessarily a miracle that this stayed; however, it’s there now and there really isn’t anything else that is there now that’s above ground.”

With “World Trade Center,” an Oliver Stone film about two Port Authority officers rescued from the rubble, opening this week, the survivors’ stories have garnered newfound attention. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, will decide the staircase’s fate this fall.

The stairs remain by luck. After 9/11, they provided work crews access to the pile and the damaged 1/9 subway tunnel below. For some residents eager to see their neighborhood rebuilt, the stairs have come to symbolize not steps to freedom, but yet another barrier to the rebuilding of their neighborhood.

“We’ve had enough delays. We’re five years down the road and only now construction has just started,” said Community Board 1 member Bill Love. “I don’t see that most of that structure is worth preserving… It’s really only there by happenstance at this point.”

The stairs will likely complicate the rebuilding effort. Preliminary work has already begun on the eastern bathtub, which will run directly underneath the 175-ton staircase. Towers 2, 3 and 4 are all dependent on a new eastern bathtub, and building the tub around the stairs could prove costly and dangerous for work crews.

The stairs also stand squarely in the footprint of the new Tower 2. If developer Larry Silverstein designs the new tower to accommodate the relic, it could compromise the 130,000 sq. ft. of retail space planned for the tower.

Preservationists “don’t think about or care about the potential delays to construction, the potential further costs,” said Love. Incorporating the stairs into the new tower “would knock out the ground level retail… I just think it’s very irresponsible.”

The bulk of the retail at the new Trade Center will be in Towers 3 and 4 along Church St., and both those towers will rise before Tower 2. However, for residents eager to see shops return to their neighborhood, 130,000 sq. ft. is a significant space. Lord Norman Foster, a world-class architect known for iconic, modern designs, will design Tower 2, the final Church St. tower planned for the 16-acre site.

The stairs are visible from the Vesey St. pedestrian walkway. They look like an ancient relic, with coarse, battered steps, ground down to uneven, gnarled ridges. In stark contrast, the upper steps are still slick, granite stairs as they were on Sept. 10. The stairway ends abruptly, cut off with rusted cables protruding through the concrete masonry, reaching out to a plaza that no longer exists.

The stairway “is symbolic of anyone who was touched by 9/11,” said Patty Clark, a Port Authority employee who escaped from her offices on the 65th floor of Tower 1, eventually making her way down the Vesey St. staircase. “It’s damaged. We’re all somewhat damaged.”

Stairs defined Clark’s escape. As she descended the endless flights, she was periodically redirected to other staircases. On the 23rd floor, she ran into a co-worker, Kayla Berceron, who had her BlackBerry and was fully aware of what was transpiring outside. The two traveled the rest of their way together. When they reached the 11th floor, the South Tower collapsed. “There was a rumbling sound followed by shaking, the shaking was just a violent shaking that appeared worse than the initial hit,” Clark recalled. “Our staircase started twisting and then our lights went out. We kind of thought it was over.”

But it wasn’t over. The lights flickered and came back on and Clark continued her descent. When Clark and Berceron reached the bottom, the North Tower’s water main burst. “One hundred and ten stories of water was washing down,” said Clark. “That part was fairly treacherous.”

When they reached the plaza, a tangled mess of cables and concrete, the two found protection beneath the eaves to Tower 6, eventually making their final descent down the Vesey St. stairs.

“Your whole mentality was you just flee, you’re not going to go back towards that thing you were just in. Going towards the plaza, towards the center, that clearly wasn’t an option. That was even more treacherous than where we were,” said Clark. In terms of her escape, the Vesey stairway “is a critical piece. It’s what got me off of the plaza.”

The stairs have ignited something of a movement within the survivor community. The W.T.C. Survivors’ Network, a loose affiliation of survivors, first drew attention to the staircase two years ago, bringing the issue to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which has been overseeing the historic preservation issues regarding the site. The organization also launched a Web site, www.Savethestairway.org, organized a letter writing campaign and has worked with preservationists to preserve the stairs.

“It’s the last remaining piece of the World Trade Center complex that’s standing above ground. Think about what that means. It’s the last remaining piece. If it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” said Richard Zimbler, a Survivors’ Network organizer who can see the staircase from his Independence Plaza North apartment in Tribeca.

The Port and the L.M.D.C. have been reviewing various remedies for the staircase, including dismantling it and moving it piecemeal in order to rebuild the eastern bathtub. Community Board 1, which represents the district, overwhelmingly supported a resolution supporting any effort that would speed the rebuilding effort — including disassembling the staircase and moving it off of the site entirely.

Preserving the stairway at its present location would pose a serious design challenge, and Silverstein has not indicated whether he’d be willing to incorporate it into his new tower.

“We would like to see the staircase preserved and believe that it can be,” Dara McQuillan, a Silverstein spokesperson, said in a statement. “There are several options as to where the staircase may ultimately go on the site, all of which should be studied with input from the community.”

Advocates concede that the stairs may need to be moved temporarily to aid construction. “We certainly don’t want lives put at risk to preserve an inanimate object,” said Zimbler. But all would like to see the staircase returned to the 16 acres, be it in the memorial museum or elsewhere on the site.

“Some people say it’s only stone or rock. But what’s a tombstone?” said Canavan, who fled Tower 1 with a score of coworkers, three of whom died in front of him. “It’s the last remaining piece. For whatever reason it was saved… To go through all that destruction and still stand, it deserves a better fate than that. They built a whole city around the Alamo. They can build around this.”


Downtown Express columnist David Stanke argues that the Survivors’ Stairway should not be preserved because of the costs, Page 15.

Remnants of the Vesey St. stairs, which were the last steps to survival for hundreds who escaped the World Trade Center complex on Sept. 11, 2001.