Four and half years after terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center, construction began quietly today on a controversial Ground Zero memorial to the nearly 3,000 victims.
"It's a momentous day," said Gretchen Dykstra, president the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. "It's not a day of celebration."
Tourists visited the site as usual. Some took pictures, some simply stood and stared. A few joined a gathering of victims' families who protested the memorial's design and location.
The design, from architect Michael Arad, was selected two years ago, but today was the first time any work had been done on it. The memorial is supposed to open in 2009, on the eight-year anniversary of the attacks. Dykstra said she hoped that the start of construction would spur additional fundraising. The World Trade Center Memorial Foundation is 80 percent short of its goal.
Opponents of the memorial say too much of the site's base has already been damaged by the building of a train station at Ground Zero.
A small group of construction workers in hard hats and orange vests used bulldozers and dump trucks to remove a layer of gravel to uncover part of the twin towers' original foundation. The workmen must check the condition of the steel and concrete before they build the memorial.
But the effort has drawn fire from some of the relatives of the victims it is intended to honor.
A group of victims' families and historic preservationists object to the memorial's location and design, and are trying to halt construction. They are angry that the building will permanently cover part of the original foundation.
"Today is a very sad day for America," said Anthony Gardner. He believes the memorial dishonors the deceased, which included his brother Harvey, who died on the 83rd floor of one of the towers.
"These footprints evoke what was lost as well as the human drama that took place there in a way that no museum or memorial ever could," Gardner told reporters on a street corner overlooking Ground Zero. "If destroyed, future visitors will be robbed of the ability to grasp the true scale of the twin towers and will be denied access to the only tangible scar the attacks left on our nation's soil."
Gardner and the other 100 relatives who protested also object to the memorial's design. Called "Reflecting Absence," the design was chosen from more than 5,000 entries and consists of water cascading into two underground pools surrounded by the names of people killed in the 2001 attacks and the 1993 trade center bombing. That the names will be listed below street level upsets family members.
Nevertheless, proponents of the design hailed the start of construction.
"We come today with a wonderful plan," said John Whitehead, chairman of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. "Today is a time when I hope everyone will pull together and work towards getting it done."