Tribute center begins recruiting volunteers for anniversary

BY Michael Mandelkern

The Tribute WTC Visitor Center is already gearing up for what is expected to be a huge influx of visitors for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, hoping more locals are willing to share their experiences from nine years ago.

But according to David Barrette, the Tribute Center’s volunteer program manager, finding volunteer walking tour guides who were in Lower Manhattan on 9/11 is challenging. Many have moved in the past nine years and others are avoiding painful memories.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to revisit [the memories from that day],” he said.

“It’s more traumatic for them,” said Wendy Aibel-Weiss, director of exhibits and education at the Tribute Center. “It hurts so much.”

The demographic of volunteers reflect Barrette’s belief. Only one in five volunteers lives Downtown.

A relatively low turnout of locals, both as tour guides and visitors, can also be attributed to a lack of awareness. “There are some people who don’t know about the program at all,” admitted Barrette.

The center, an extension of the September 11th Family Organization, currently has 300 trained volunteers, 200 of which are active. Some have moved away while others were overwhelmed by the experience. Aibel-Weiss hopes to double the amount of volunteers by next summer.

Volunteers undergo a minimum of six months of training, including an interview process to verify whether their stories are personal and legitimate and an intense weekend group and individual session. They come from diverse backgrounds; survivors; local residents; recovery workers and those who lost loved ones.

One volunteer leads a tour as another one provides support at the end of the line and briefly shares his or her own story at the end. A typical group of visitors ranges from 20 to 25 people. Generally, tours are given six days per week with four tours per day.

The Tribute Center, located on Liberty Street between Church and Greenwich Streets, directly one block from Ground Zero, has invited several Lower Manhattan companies, such as American Express, to view its galleries and take walking tours since it opened in late 2006. It has also reached out to family support groups, many of which are located in Long Island. They also advertise on the volunteer section of New York Cares and ny.gov.

The center’s website, tributewtc.org, offers a free classroom tool kit for teachers to share with their pupils. It also reaches out to Port Authority of New York and New Jersey retirees to recruit volunteers.

Aibel-Weiss reached out at a full Community Board 1 meeting last Tuesday. Some in the audience shared heartfelt speeches of lost loved ones, but the meeting was overwhelmed by politically and religiously charged rhetoric lambasting the Cordoba Initiative’s plans to build a 13-story community center with a prayer space.

“We are politically and religiously neutral,” asserted Barrette, adding that the center is also recruiting volunteers through advertisements at Downtown apartment complexes.

Visitors walk through two floors of gallery space, which include steel from Ground Zero and genuine flyers of missing people, before starting a tour.

Ron Vega, a volunteer tour guide, led last Friday’s tour. “They want the truthful story, not what they saw on the Internet,” he said. Although much of the tour provided background information on 9/11 and the neighborhood, it was peppered with personal stories.

As the group walked around Ground Zero and then over a bridge crossing West Street he gave an overview of how the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which is expected to be completed by the 10th anniversary of 9/11, will be constructed. The group curiously gazed around the construction at Ground Zero and took photographs.

Once they arrived at 2 World Financial Center, Vega pointed out that where they stood was once covered in three inches of debris, which he helped removed.

Vega was an architect for the Department of Design and Construction nine years ago and worked the night shift during the recovery effort until July 2002. “We just wanted to find everyone that was murdered,” he said.

Glenroy Sandy, the supporting tour guide, told the audience near the end of the tour that he used to work on the ground floor of the main World Trade Center site for 25 years and knew people on the top floors who were killed.

Sandy became teary after a few minutes and couldn’t finish his story. He comes back to the site to “get some kind of closure,” but it took him several years to return. A few visitors cried too.

Others who aren’t as directly affected by 9/11 as locals “feel a sense of ownership” over the historic tragedy, said Aibel-Weiss. “It’s a tribute to people who lost lives and gave so generously.”

Howard Levy, who began volunteering in February 2009, still lives in the South Street Seaport’s Southbridge Towers. His terrace and windowsill was blasted with so much debris that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had to air out his apartment twice.

To make matters worse, the collapse of World Trade Center 7 knocked out electricity for all residents south of Chambers Street. But as a Con Edison worker he was able to help restore power about a week later, although he had to walk several miles since subways weren’t running.

He hopes others Downtown share their unique experiences as well. “There’s got to be stories out there [in Chinatown]. They had an awful time,” said Levy.

Although the full World Trade Center site will not be constructed by the 10th anniversary Aibel-Weiss believes the process is “speeding up” and that New Yorkers will be “enthusiastic” about the final product. “The City has more compassion for that reality” because of the recession, she added.

Barrette said that, despite the target of 400 active volunteers, “There’s no magic formula, we’re hoping as many people come as they can…the volunteers we have are incredibly dedicated.”