NEW YORK (USATODAY.com) – He had just helped pull three bodies from the rubble when he saw it there in dawn's first light, standing in a sea of debris. A heavenly symbol in a hellish setting. A cross.
Exhausted and traumatized by his labors, the man dropped to his knees in tears. "It was a sign,'' Frank Silecchia would recall, "a sign that God hadn't deserted us."
It was a remnant of the World Trade Center's North Tower, a 17-foot-high cross-section of steel I-beams that had plummeted into the shell of an adjacent office building two days earlier.
It was Sept. 13, 2001. In the sad days and years to come, what became known as the Ground Zero Cross inspired people around the world as it was moved from site to site in Lower Manhattan. Its odyssey finally brought it to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which will be dedicated Thursday.
The museum spans seven stories, from its surface entrance pavilion down to bedrock. Its subterranean galleries were built around the cross and several other monumental artifacts.
They include a staircase that channeled the imperiled to safety; a column that refused to yield when others around it fell; a wall that held back the flood; and the cross that materialized in the midst of chaos.
These pieces of concrete and steel have assumed the classic qualities of heroism — courage, endurance, tenacity, faithfulness. On the worst day in American history, they in some sense succeeded where humans failed.
The new museum must help those unborn or unaware on 9/11/01 to understand an awful time. That means telling stories. And, as former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg says, "The stories are carved in the objects.''
Some in the museum are as small as a flight attendant's lapel wings. But it's the largest ones, such as the cross, that promise to make a visit stirring:
•The Last Column: the final piece of structural steel removed from Ground Zero. It was trucked out in May 2002 covered with an American flag and a shroud, moved to a hangar at Kennedy Airport and lowered into the museum in 2009.
•The Tridents: 80-foot-high exterior columns that helped form the neo-Gothic look of the Trade Center's base. They were damaged in the attacks but remained standing. Workers cut them in half for transport to the hangar and later installation in the museum, where they rise from bedrock to the glass-enclosed entrance pavilion.
•The Survivors' Staircase: the last visible remnant of the Trade Center after the attacks. The stairs connected the elevated outdoor plaza with the street, allowing hundreds or thousands to escape. In 2008, the 58-ton stairway was taken to the museum, where it stands next to the ramp visitors use to descend to bedrock.
•The Slurry Wall: a 60-foot-high reinforced concrete barrier designed to hold back the Hudson River. Although the wall was originally braced by the floors of the underground parking garage, it held even after they were crushed by the towers' collapse.
THE HARDHAT AND THE FRANCISCAN
On Sept. 11, 2001, Silecchia was a laborer between union jobs. The next day, he arrived at Ground Zero to join the recovery effort and stayed for nine months to help with the removal of 3.6 million pounds of wreckage. Like many, he did not wear a mask to protect himself from the toxic fumes. Today, he says, "my health is shot.''
A month shy of 60, he has trouble walking and sleeping. He has had three operations for respiratory and sinus problems. He's on anti-depressants and sleep medication. At 350 pounds, he's at least 125 overweight. He says he still has nightmares about the 47 corpses he found 13 years ago.
There is a consolation – the memory of what he calls "my cross.''
As soon as he spotted it that dawn, he told others. He spray-painted arrows around the site pointing to "Gods House'' (sic). Recovery and rescue workers came by on their breaks; some wrote the names of the dead or their units on the cross. Silecchia used an ironworker's marker to write, "In Gods Hands.''
He knew that, as the cleanup proceeded, the cross was endangered. On the second Sunday after the attacks, he came upon a man in a Franciscan's brown robe giving communion to cops, firefighters and hardhats. This was Brian Jordan, who'd lost his friend and fellow Franciscan, Mychal Judge, in the attack.
Silecchia tapped the friar on the shoulder and said, "Father, do you want to see God's House?"
After 100 yards, Silecchia stopped and said, "Look over there. Just keep looking." It was a cross, in a field of crosses. This one tilted about 15 degrees to the right, and its horizontal bar was draped with insulation that looked like a shroud.
For almost two weeks, people had been asking the priest why God had allowed the attacks, had abandoned them. "This is what I've been looking for,'' he told Silecchia, what he'd been praying for.
Silecchia said he was afraid the cross would be junked. "You found it,'' Jordan said. "I'll save it.''
The next day he called Deputy Mayor Joseph Lhota. Ten days later, a crane lifted the cross to a new perch on the western edge of Ground Zero.
Jordan held a blessing ceremony. "Behold the glory of the cross at Ground Zero," he said as he sprinkled holy water. "This is our symbol of hope, our symbol of faith, our symbol of healing." A bagpiper played Amazing Grace.
GATHERING AT THE CROSS
Each weekend, Jordan said Mass at the foot of the cross. His congregation, a mixture of victims' families, workers and visitors, grew from dozens to hundreds. There were people of all religions and none. What seemed to matter most was the gathering together.
To accommodate reconstruction, on Valentine's Day, the cross was moved to the eastern boundary of the site and placed on a concrete pedestal.
On Good Friday 2002, Jordan and a group of workers stood at the base of the cross and recited the Stations of the Cross, the liturgy that marks Jesus' crucifixion. "You could have been looking at the earliest Christians,'' wrote columnist Michael Daly of New York's Daily News. "You did not have to believe in Jesus' resurrection to recognize and respect their heartfelt faith.''
The cross's image appeared around the world on lapel pins, knickknacks, posters and tattoos. Replica pendants were worn into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By 2006, office buildings were set to rise where the cross stood. The Port Authority, which controlled the site, planned to move it to the hangar at Kennedy Airport, along with other monumental 9/11 artifacts.
To Jordan and Silecchia, putting a sacred relic in a dusty garage was unthinkable. The ironworkers, teamsters and crane operators who'd handled its previous moves agreed. And if they weren't going to move it, no one would move it.
A pastor agreed to accept the cross at his church, St. Peter's, three blocks away. On Oct. 6, with the rusty cross chained to a flatbed truck, Jordan and Silecchia led a procession of several hundred people singing God Bless America.
The cross stood outside St. Peter's until July 23, 2011, when it was again loaded on a truck for its return to Ground Zero, now a bustling construction site. There, a crane lowered it slowly down into the subterranean museum space, like a coffin to the grave.
The Ground Zero Cross, for some the most resonant artifact of 9/11, has been underground and out of public sight for almost three years.
A lawsuit by an atheist advocacy group argues that, as a religious symbol, the cross has no place in a public museum. The museum says the cross merely shows how some people were affected by the attacks, and its presence is no more an endorsement of religion than any painting of the Virgin in the National Gallery of Art.
A federal district judge ruled for the museum; the atheists' appeal is likely to be decided shortly.
Silecchia says that in the days after 9/11, people were drawn to the cross not as a symbol of Christ but something else: a sign that somehow, death — even the death of almost 3,000 innocents — was not the final word.
"My cross is not a symbol of religion,'' he says. "It's a symbol of faith.''