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Redemption at Ground Zero

By Larry Kelley
web posted December 17, 2001

Since a sneak attack caused the devastation in the first place, I was already having second thoughts about trying to surreptitiously slip onto Ground Zero. Any such temptation evaporated, however, upon first viewing the well-guarded perimeter. Aluminum barricades staffed by police and National Guard kept people back at least 100 yards.

New Yorkers are not known to stare, so the first thing I notice (besides the burnt smell in the air) is the large group of people simply gazing down the alleyway at the rubble towering over a six-foot-high green wood fence.

The jagged chunk of metal -- almost 8 stories high, an ashen gray that barely reflects light -- is mesmerizing. Waterspouts arched over and behind it making for an eerie, surrealistic landscape.

The first police officer I spoke to was stationed in an out-the-way alley with only one other officer. I gingerly approached him reminding myself he may have lost a friend, partner or brother in the attack and gave him my, or I should say -- the flag's -- story:

"This flag comes from Amherst, my hometown (clutching the folded flag to my chest). On the night before that happened (I pointed down the alleyway) my Selectboard unanimously voted to keep this flag down; and a Umass professor testified this (offering it up to his face) was a "symbol of terrorism."

By now he was slowing nodding his head up and down. I asked if he heard about Amherst and the flag fiasco. "Yes", he replied, "I've heard about your town."

"Redemption -- that's all I want," I replied. "Couldn't you please just give me 10 seconds? That's all I need. The next time this flag will fly is over Amherst town center on the day bin Laden is captured and then it will go on permanent display at the Amherst Historical Museum."

I could tell he was thinking…but he said somberly "I can't…I really, really can't. We have strict orders nobody goes to Ground Zero."

"Besides," he added "We would be intercepted before we made it half-way."

He took my wife's city map and showed us a couple streets where higher-ranking officers could be found who could authorize our quest. "Tell them what you told me. You aren't some souvenir hunter or gawker…they'll let you in."

My next attempt was a gregarious looking, slightly overweight, Red Cross worker standing behind an eight foot iron gate surrounding an ornate stone church now used as a command center. Dozens of people milled about outside reading the patchwork of cards, T-shirts and flyers attached to the gate.

"I can hang the flag here", he said while grabbing the gate with one hand, "but I absolutely can't get you to Ground Zero," he said. By the look on my face he could tell that it wasn't the answer I wanted, so he put arm around my shoulder and said, "Let's see if I can find someone who can get you down there."

We walked up the street to a crowded alley gated like the others, but guarded by five police officers. He pointed to one wearing a white shirt under his blue uniform and said, "He can help you," and then added "good luck."

They were about 25 yards away murmuring among themselves so I would have to shout to get his attention. Do I try "Hey captain!" and take a chance that he's actually a lieutenant or vice versa? I knew pointing my finger at him and then curling it to ask him to come over was also not a good idea.

Finally one of the officers headed over towards the mouth of the alley and started to squeeze his burly frame between the barricade and the side brick wall. I gently grabbed his upper arm and said "Officer can I please have a moment?"

Looking me up and down, he spotted the folded flag in my left hand and replied "Sure." Now for the third time in 20 minutes I replayed the saga of the infamous flags of Amherst (a tad faster but still earnestly).

This time I added how, until 9/11, Amherst was most famous because of Emily Dickinson. And how my great, great grandfather, a one-armed Irish immigrant, worked for Miss Emily -- and how she bestowed the ultimate honor by requesting he act as lead pallbearer at her funeral.

"I can't authorize anything, but let me ask my sarge," he said. He headed back over to the other group and talked to one taller cop who kept shaking his head "no". After a minute he moved over to another and then, finally -- a short, tough looking black woman. He only talked to her for thirty seconds before ambling back over to me.

During his entire negotiations on my behalf, 3 or 4 minutes that felt like forever, I had to suppress the urge to go over the gate and pitch my case directly. A bystander wearing roller blades, long sleeve bike shirt and helmet had overheard my presentation and suggested I make a run for it.

"Lets go," the officer said, tilting his head in the direction of Ground Zero. We only walked a few paces when I stopped "Can my wife come, I need a witness?" is asked plaintively.

He was thinking it over when the guy in roller blades yelled "they walked all the way here from Massachusetts!"

"Okay," he said.

About 75 yards down the alley we came to another checkpoint invisible from the street. This one guarded by four police and four National Guard in camouflage. "I'm taking them to the site," he said to the guards on the right. They just nodded.

I had borrowed my business partner's digital camera and didn't realize it had a flash function. So as we entered Ground Zero, although illuminated like a football stadium, I anxiously scanned the scene searching for a particularly well-lit area.

"I don't know what you want for background…" he started to say, but before he could finish, I had spotted the place. I sprinted about 6 feet and jumped up on a three-foot high concrete abutment startling my wife who exclaimed "Larry!"

My sudden movement and Donna's screech caught the attention of the guards at checkpoint #2 who started moving towards us…. just as I unfurled the flag.

They stopped.

I held it to my right and it just kind of hung limply. I swung to my left thinking, "Please God just give me some air." A warm dusty breeze blew over the flattened landscape, catching the colors and causing an audible "flap" I could feel in my hands.

Starting to lose my balance I leaned my left leg into the chain link fence and the flag draped across it as well--the upper right corner folding under the center. The police officer came over and gently grabbed the tucked under corner and pulled it out, then smoothed his hand several times over the weathered flag…. as Donna snapped the picture.

Then we silently walked back up to the main street, not one of us looked back.

It was still 70 degrees at around 8:15 pm, unusually warm for December 1st, as we left Ground Zero. The moon was full and almost directly overhead…about the only thing in New York City that still looks really high up.

Larry Kelley is a small business owner and lifelong resident of Amherst, Massachusetts.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Amherst's bad timing by Isabel Lyman (September 17, 2001)
    Isabel Lyman reports that on the evening of September 10, the town of Amherst, Massachusetts voted to ban the "excessive" flying of American flags. That decision was regretted only hours later
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