Grieving Mother Fights for 9/11 Tree Memorial

Last week, the first of 400 trees recovered from the shadows of ground zero arrived at the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum after being carefully tended in a New Jersey nursery.

But one lone tree has been overlooked in a New York City park, without even a marker to note that it survived the national tragedy.


The red maple tree was saved from 333 Rector Place and later dedicated to the memory of a 26-year-old investment banker who, with his Wall Street colleagues, had witnessed the planes fly into the twin towers and was killed in an overseas car accident a few months later.

Jeremy Palley didn't die in 9/11, but the fate of this once frail tree whose identity is lost in the city's Carl Schurz Park, has compounded one mother's overwhelming grief from losing her son.

For seven years, Iris Palley has not been allowed to place a marker to recognize the tree, now strong and beautiful, as a relic from 9/11.

As Sept. 11 rolls around once again, and many Americans are crying out about the insensitivity of building a mosque so close to where 2,600 died, who has a monopoly on grief? Is one mother's loss greater than another's, no matter what the circumstances?

"It's not about Jeremy," insisted Palley, 62, and vice president of Sotheby's International Realty. "It's about the special history of that tree."

The tree was planted on a slope near a playground where her son played at the Upper East Side park.

"It soothes me when I go there, and it's not just about my grieving. It's anyone who has lost somebody and is grieving," said Palley. "I just think it's disrespectful and it makes me feel diminished. A tree is a living, breathing thing, and this tree is a real survivor."

Some park officials worried that they were being portrayed as"hard-hearted" and questioned the origin of the tree.

"We are always respectful and careful with things like this," said Judy Howard, head of the Carl Schurz Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group that maintains the public park.

"The tree has been placed in a wonderful area, and we've always understood that it came from down there," she said. "Although I am not sure what it means to be a 9/11 tree."

What Is a Ground Zero Tree?

"It's not a matter of allowing people," said Howard. "We don't have plaques on any of our trees that are donated in memory of someone."

Howard said the board hoped one day to develop an online registry to acknowledge those gifts, but for the most part, others who donated trees in memory of loved ones were satisfied.

Jeremy worked in DoubleClick's corporate development group from 1991-2001. He was getting his MBA at the international Insead business school in France and died when the car he was driving crashed into a tree one early morning, just before his graduation May 18, 2002.

"He died instantly," said Palley. "He was an incredible child and a really lovely human being. He was really too good to be true."

But her grief has been long and prolonged. "I was in such horrible pain aching for him," said Palley.

She even hired a private detective to find out the circumstances of the accident, but it still remains a mystery.

Jeremy, a 1999 graduate of University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, was a young superstar at the downtown internet firm DoubleClick.

The company's chief counsel , Elizabeth Wang, befriended her younger colleague, whom she said she always relied on for "good advice." They worked together on investment deals.

In 2001, when the planes hit the World Trade Center, Jeremy urged Wang to pay attention to the terrorism attack that was unfolding.

"Jeremy was the person who made me stop the conference call I was doing and go outside," she said. "I was in the middle of a big complicated deal and couldn't be bothered with what was happening. Because our patio had a clear sight line to World Trade Center [employees] saw the whole of first plane."

After Wang left the building, others watched the second plane hit.

No one at DoubleClick perished in 9/11, but several lost spouses. "We had nothing to do with 9/11, but [Jeremy's death] was close enough that the timing gets mixed up about which came first," said Wang.

"I thought Jeremy would be my friend for life," said Wang, 45. "He was like a brother to me. … I had this assumption that I would know him as he grew and went to business school and got married, and I would be invited to the wedding. It was tough."

DoubleClick loved Jeremy as well, and when he was killed, his former colleagues searched for a way to commemorate his life, asking horticulturist Steven Keith, who maintained the garden planters on the company's huge rooftop patio, to find something appropriate.

"I'm a tree guy, that's what I do," said Keith, who runs a small business, For the Plants, in Stamford, Conn.

"His mother has a right to demand a marker," he said. "Her voice made me remember him, how quickly things happen and suddenly the world is different."

When the twin towers collapsed, the initial concussion, compounded by the granular cement dust cloud covered many of the downtown plants, cutting off their access to light, air and water.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Keith had been allowed behind police lines in the so-called red zone around the World Financial Center to collect dozens of trees from the specialty gardens he had tended. "I thought they could be revived," he said.

One of the 11 red maples, half dozen black pines and weeping cherries that Keith nurtured back to life was the tree he selected for Jeremy, a "blood good" maple that had come from River Rose, an apartment complex at Rector Place.

"I knew Jeremy," said Keith. "It was a big, open, friendly company at the time, and I knew him. I wanted to do something for him."

New York City Allows Memorials in Tree Book

DoubleClick commemorated the tree at an unveiling ceremony and kept it outside Jeremy's former office. But in 2003, the company moved offices, and there was no place for the tree, so Iris Palley had it transplanted at Carl Schurz Park, where it is now thriving.

At first she didn't ask for a plaque. "I wanted to see if it would live," she said. "It was so teenie, like two twigs, when DoubleClick presented the tree."

Originally, Palley asked the conservancy board to honor Jeremy on a plaque but later said she'd be happy just to identify where the tree was found.

She said officials told her "We don't do plaques, but we do benches. You could buy a bench."

"There are plaques under and next to trees all over Central Park," said Palley.

Today the area around the tree is a "mess," according to Palley, and Howard of the Carl Schurz Park Conservancy agreed but said the board is tight on funds.

Wang, who first met Iris Palley at Jeremy's funeral and has become a close friend, said she too can't understand the park's stance.

"The city is so big and everyone is head down and do what they need to do," Wang said. "But they should step back and see the big picture.

'I think in life, we are always looking for a piece of poetry and it seems so right to do that one little thing," she said. "A tree is soothing for anyone has ever lost anyone. It should not be anonymous. It deserves recognition."

The New York City Parks and Recreation Department issued this statement: "It is our policy to not put memorial plaques on trees or in the ground at the base of a tree. This policy has been developed to preserve the health of the trees, to respect the aesthetics of our parks and to minimize parks maintenance issues. We try to accommodate such requests by suggesting that the donor contact Adopt-A-Park to find out how to place a plaque on a nearby bench, where it is likely to stay in place for a much longer period and be more visible. We also have a program through which you can add the name of someone you want to honor by placing their name in parks' commemorative tree book."

For more information on how to donate a tree and list your name in Parks' commemorative tree book, go to New York City Parks and Recreation Department and search "Tree Trust."