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Follow the Data Podcast: The 9/11 Memorial Glade: A Tribute to Strength

Jon Stewart, a 9/11 Memorial & Museum board member, at the dedication of the 9/11 Memorial Glade which he helped realize.

This episode is a rebroadcast that we first published in late September of 2019 around the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. While the 9/11 Memorial Glade was temporarily closed to the public during the pandemic for safety reasons, the space has reopened to welcome visitors once again.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, support flooded in from across the country to drive the recovery effort in New York, and beyond. Since then, hundreds of thousands of first responders, recovery workers, and community members have gotten sick and many have passed away from exposure to toxins at the recovery site.

To recognize the sacrifice, loss and continuing effort of those who responded to rebuild the community, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum created a physical space on the memorial site, called the Memorial Glade.

The Glade’s design includes a pathway flanked by six large stone monoliths, ranging from 13 to 18 tons, that are inlaid with World Trade Center steel accompanied by an inscription at either end of the pathway. Their design incorporates steel from the original World Trade Center site.

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ founder and Chairman of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Mike Bloomberg became mayor shortly after 9/11. At the dedication ceremony for the Glade, he joined other champions of the memorial including Jon Stewart to reinforce the message that, “We have a duty to care for those who need it and to honor the memory of those who died. The memorial glade helps us to fulfill that duty.”

On the heels of the 18th anniversary of 9/11, we feature a conversation between Anita Contini of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Arts program and Alice Greenwald, National September 11th Memorial and Museum President and CEO. They discuss how the Glade came to be, it’s thoughtful design, and how the space will tell its story for years to come.

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KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

18 years ago, the events of September 11 changed the world forever. In the aftermath of the attacks, thousands of people rallied at Ground Zero to support recovery efforts. For months, countless heroes worked round the clock in dangerous conditions in order to rebuild New York City.

The recovery effort didn’t just take a physical and mental toll on workers, it also exposed 400,000 people to toxins – with well over 97,000 of those people becoming critically ill.

On the 17th anniversary of the official end of the recovery mission, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City unveiled the “Memorial Glade,” – a grassy clearing on the plaza featuring a path hugged by six huge stone structures, called monoliths. The Glade serves as a tribute to all 9/11 first responders, recovery workers, and community members who became sick or died from related illnesses.

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ founder and Chairman of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Mike Bloomberg became acting Mayor shortly after 9/11. At the dedication ceremony for the Glade, he joined other champions of the memorial including Jon Stewart to reinforce the message that, “We have a duty to care for those who need it and to honor the memory of those who died. The memorial Glade helps us to fulfill that duty.”

On this episode of Follow the Data, Anita Contini of the Arts program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, speaks with Alice Greenwald, National September 11th Memorial and Museum President and CEO. They discuss the mission, design, and long-term impact of the 9/11 Memorial Glade.

Michael Arad, Mike Bloomberg, Patti Harris and Anita Contini at the 9/11 Memorial Glade dedication ceremony in May, 2019.
Michael Arad, Mike Bloomberg, Patti Harris and Anita Contini at the 9/11 Memorial Glade dedication ceremony in May, 2019.

ANITA CONTINI:  So hi, Alice. Thank you for joining us for this talk today.  As we approach the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we’d like to use this moment to reflect on the newest addition of The Glade to the memorial site.

You and I have been involved in the development of The Glade since the inception.  For those who are listening who may not have visited the site, how would you describe the Glade in a broader context of the memorial and the museum?

ALICE GREENWALD:  Well, first of all, thank you, Anita, for having me.  I’m delighted to talk about The Glade. The best way to describe The Glade is that it is actually a permanent modification to the 9/11 Memorial that occupies pretty much 25% of the memorial plaza just west of the south memorial pool. This is a verdant, green, contemplative space that is dedicated to all of the people who are sick and/or have died from 9/11-related illnesses.

It became very clear to us that the necessity to tell the complete story of 9/11 required that we acknowledge the fact that so many people are suffering and dying 18 years after the attacks. It’s also a celebration, a recognition, of the enormous generosity of the human spirit demonstrated during the rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site and the other two sites.

CONTINI: At the dedication, Caryn Pfeifer, the widow of the firefighter Raymond Pfeifer, said that this was a place to honor their courage, their strength.

CARYN PFEIFER: Good Morning. I came today to help dedicated the Memorial Glade in honor of my husband, firefighter, Ray Pfeifer. A man who used to say, “Do the right thing, even when no one is looking.” My name is Caryn Pfeifer, and my husband lost all 12 members of his Manhattan firehouse on 9/11. For him, the guys were family, whether they had been in his firehouse or in another. Like so many of you here today, Ray spent the next nine months searching and digging at Ground Zero – without being asked, without being told. And — without thinking about the consequences.

But, there were consequences. There was illness and pain and death. And for Ray, that meant his guys, and their families were in trouble. He was a first responder, who dedicated his life to helping other first responders. To fighting for health care, to safeguarding their families. To making sure, making a lot of noise to make sure, our country kept its promise to those who brought healing in the aftermath of 9/11. Ray was the best husband and father, so proud of his kids. Always there for all of us, cheering us on. Making sure we, and out whole extended family, were safe, and taken care of.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that he did that for everyone he felt was family, and in his case, that meant a lot of people. That meant anyone who had worked on the pile, anyone who worked on rescue and recovery after 9/11.

We lost Ray two years ago, from what began as kidney cancer, a result of his work down at the World Trade Center Site. I know many of you are suffering through your own nightmares – whether you worked on the pile, live nearby, or went to school in this neighborhood. Lending each other support, even through the toughest times, finding strength and hope in one another.

Ray loved being a firefighter more than he loved anything. And in a way, this Glade reminds me of him. It’s trees that offer shelter and reach for the sky, providing a place to sit and remember and be together. On behalf of Ray, and our children, Terence and Taylor, and on behalf of all the widows and widowers. I thank you for giving us a place to remember them. A place that honors the work that they did, their courage and their strength. What a beautiful place of our heroes.

And Ray, like you said, do the right thing, even if no one is looking. And today, Ray, everyone is looking.

Thank you.

GREENWALD:  Well, Caryn’s husband, was a fervent advocate for all of the rescue and recovery workers, the first responders, who had been suffering with 9/11-related illness, and he would go to Washington on a regular basis.  He would lobby for what came to be known as the Zadroga Act. This was a personal commitment of his, and he did pass away from 9/11-related disease.

So, she’s absolutely right that what The Glade provides is this dedicated space that does two things.  It does celebrate the recovery and the efforts of the recovery workers and the first responders which was an extraordinary demonstration of commitment and determination after 9/11.

Ground Zero was a 16-acre site with a debris field that went beyond the 16 acres.  It was a seven-story-deep hole in the ground and seven stories high, and these individuals, many of whom started as volunteers coming from all over the country and some from around the world, they came to help.  And the goal initially was to rescue, and all too soon it became not a rescue operation but a recovery operation.

Over a period of nine months, these tens of thousands of workers, they were first responders, construction workers, people in a variety of trades who came, and they would search for the remains of victims because they felt an obligation to their families to bring these people home.  They also removed nearly two million tons of debris from the site so that rebuilding could happen in New York City.

It’s a tribute to that incredible effort and generosity of spirit, but it is also a place where now the families of those who have died from these illnesses, they can come here.  And I will share a story because it is pertinent to Karen’s remark.


GREENWALD:  A couple who are now quite affiliated with the Memorial Museum, Sonia and Joe Agron, Sonia Agron was a respite worker.  She worked for the American Red Cross as a volunteer after 9/11.  She was trained as an EMS specialist.  And Sonia is now, as her husband Joe, a former NYPD officer, they’re both suffering from 9/11-related illnesses due to their time at Ground Zero. Sonia’s also a volunteer museum docent, so I’ve gotten to know her quite well.

CONTINI:  That’s wonderful.

GREENWALD:  And this spring when we dedicated The Glade, I wrote to her and I said, ” I’m hoping we’ll see you there.”  And she wrote back, and she said, “You know, I’ve been in the hospital, and I missed my birthday, and I missed Mother’s Day, but I will not miss the dedication of the Glade.”  May 30th comes, I go to find her.  It was a large crowd you remember.  You were there that day.


GREENWALD:  And I find her standing with her family, and her daughter is with her, and she points proudly to her daughter, and she says, “My grandchild is there.”  I congratulated them.  I said, “How wonderful.”  And then she turns to me and she said, “And now they’ll have a place to come.”

CONTINI:  That’s so beautiful to hear that, and I remember how wonderful it was to see all of those rescue workers showing up and remembering it.

GREENWALD:  It means so much to them.

CONTINI: Alice, earlier this year, you wrote a remarkable op-ed on why Jon Stewart fights for those who are sick and dying from the 9/11-related illnesses.  Can you tell us about that?

GREENWALD:  Absolutely.  Jon is a member of our board of directors, and he’s an exceptional human being.  We all know him from The Daily Show, but Jon is a man of principle who stands by his word, and if you go back and watch, and we have it in the museum, the very first Daily Show after 9/11, Jon looks at the camera, and I am not going to be able to quote him directly, but he says something to the effect of “Any fool can knock things down, but the people who come to help, who come to do the work so that you can rebuild, those are the heroes.”  And he has been an advocate for the first responders from day one.

He has not veered from that commitment, what is now really a health crisis, over 400,000 people were exposed to toxins after 9/11, not only at the World Trade Center site, but also at the Pentagon, at the Flight 93 crash site.  we know at this point well over 97,000 are sick.  They’re in the World Trade Center health registry of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].

As this health crisis began to become a reality, Jon became an advocate for that community.  He would go down to Washington and lobby with them for passage of legislation to provide healthcare for these people to ensure that their families would get compensation when they die, and he is a fervent supporter of that cause, so much so that you may remember a few weeks ago when the Victim Compensation Act was up for reauthorization, essentially permanent reauthorization, he gave testimony before the committee in Congress that was extraordinary, and for my money, moved the needle.

That moment was so powerful, to see him advocate in the way he did, as eloquently as he did, and as angry, it was righteous anger, as he displayed, he made the difference.  And that’s Jon.  I will tell you that, what you see is who he is.  He is a man of integrity and a man of passionate commitment.  He was in Atlanta when we were dedicating the memorial.  He flew in that morning because he did not want the Glade to be dedicated and not to be there.  And when he arrived at the site, he burst into tears.  It’s so emotional for him.

CONTINI: I do recall how involved he was in the whole process of the planning of The Glade.

GREENWALD:  Absolutely.

CONTINI: It’s kind of obvious a lot of thought went into that design, particularly related in how it would be situated on the memorial space.  Can you talk about the significance of the placement of The Glade and how these materials were selected?

GREENWALD:  Absolutely.  First of all, I need to credit the original memorial designers, Michael Arad and Peter Walker, who you know very well, they were brought back to help us conceive the design for The Glade.  It was very important to us and to them that the integrity of the memorial design would not be disturbed by the modification, the addition of The Glade, but that it would look as if it had always been there. It needed to feel integrated.

So, bringing the original designers back was an imperative.  And I have to say, the design that emerged is inspired.  This is, as I said, a green area.  It’s always been a green area of the memorial, but now there is a pathway that goes through this green space, and the orientation of the pathway is roughly the same as the ramp that was in place during the recovery, that recovery workers would use as a haul road to remove the debris so that it could be searched for remains, but it was also the way into the site so that family members and dignitaries could come and pay respects.

It was a path of reverence if you will.  On either side of the path are six very large granite monoliths, stone structures. They’re pointing upward, skyward, and they look like they’re pushing out of the earth, Michael has said that his intention was that they should suggest strength through adversity, the power and the determination to deal with an inconceivable situation.

He created these stones, and they are made of granite that he searched far and wide to find exactly the right granite.  He wanted it to feel of the earth, so it needed to complement the pavers that were already in place, and that would be the paving of the pathway, and he found a granite sourced in Vermont, and I know you and I spend time up there.

CONTINI: That’s right.

GREENWALD:  With the stone masons doing their amazing work of cutting these beautiful, beautiful structures. But then Michael took it a step further, and this is I think when the artist in the architect came out.  We worked very closely with many of the stakeholders from the first response community, the recovery worker community, health advocates, any number of people in the local downtown community, and they all wanted World Trade Center steel, remnant steel to be a part of this area of The Glade, and Michael struggled for a period of time trying to figure out how exactly it would fit into the design that he was evolving, and he had an inspired idea which comes out of an ancient Japanese repair tradition called kintsugi.

You’ve probably seen it, where a broken piece of pottery is reshaped and repaired using precious metal, gold, silver, semiprecious copper in the veins of the crack.  So, the metal’s actually binding the broken pieces together.  And it’s considered more beautiful after the repair.  He had the idea that he would inset remnant World Trade Center steel into the crevices and cracks of these monoliths.  And the effect is pure poetry because it’s — what you’re seeing is the glinting metal which is this remnant World Trade Center steel, which is our precious metal, and what you understand is that we’re stronger at the broken places, and that is what The Glade is about that, yes, this was a broken moment.  These people are suffering.  Far too many are dying.  But they are the strength that made this city heal, and they are the strength that allowed us to rebuild, and it’s a tribute to them.

CONTINI:  You’ve said this so well because it’s so much the way that Michael talked about this when he met with the rescue workers and explained to them what he was doing, so that whole process was pretty powerful, and I think that’s why it is so successful.  It doesn’t overwhelm the memorial plaza, but it’s so appropriate along that pathway.

I want to go back to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention which you talked about before, the CDC, because over 400,000 men and women were exposed to these toxins at the site, and I wanted to ask you how are we going to continue to tell their stories of the and make sure that they are honored for their sacrifice?

GREENWALD:  Well, I think it’s an imperative of the memorial and the museum to tell this story, and we always have felt that way.  From the day the museum opened, in our historical exhibition we do talk about the recovery, and we do talk about the ongoing health consequences of exposures at the site. That’s always been part of our narrative.  But now that story is part of the fabric of the memorial itself, and I think that’s what’s changed.  It’s now a public recognition in physical form at the memorial site so that for generations to come people will understand that this story is not an addendum to the 9/11 story; it is the 9/11 story.   And what we have begun doing to make it even more powerful is we have extended our docent program which is usually inside the museum onto the plaza, onto The Glade, and we have our volunteer docents, many of whom, like Sonia Agron who I mentioned before are living this history, worked at the site, are now dealing with illness, and they tell their story right in the middle of the Glade, and it’s enormously powerful.

People don’t know. It’s remarkable this health crisis is not local to New York.  You have people who are in this registry of people sick with 9/11-related disease from every one but one congressional district in this country because people from all over the country came to Ground Zero to help, and now they are home in their home states, and they are sick with this illness.  It is a national health crisis. And it’s important for our visitors, whether they be from the United States or from abroad, to understand that with terrorism it doesn’t end when the attack is over.  There are longitudinal effects of terrorism, and in this case, this is one of those effects.

CONTINI: So, Alice, what we saw at the dedication was that the loved ones were happy to see their loved ones recognized, but it wasn’t so much about the tragedy.  It was more about hope for the future. Is that what you’re seeing now going forward?

GREENWALD: 100%. The memorial as a whole sits in the midst of the magnificently redeveloped World Trade Center site. You look around and you’ve got gorgeous skyscrapers and a performing arts center on its way and the remarkable Oculus and a bustling downtown that has more residents than it had before 9/11 and more hotels than it had before 9/11. There is this sense that we have this dedicated space in Lower Manhattan to commemoration, but that commemoration sits at the heart of renewal and rebirth, and when you’re in The Glade and walk this pathway, at one end of the pathway is the Survivor Tree which all about resilience and renewal and the potential for hope in the face of adversity.

To my mind, The Glade is part and parcel of the biggest message of the memorial itself which is that we may not be able to prevent these horrific things from happening, we can try and God knows we do, but people of evil intent will sometimes succeed.

What we have control over is how we respond, and how this city responded and how this nation responded, frankly how the world responded after 9/11, we could do with a little of it now, was a case study in optimism and compassion and potential and all the best of who we are as human beings, and the Survivor Tree is the emblem of that. It was on Tobin Plaza next to Tower One.  It was right there.  It was severely injured on 9/11.  Its limbs were burned and broken off, and there were no leaves to speak of on this stump of a tree, and two recovery workers looked at this tree and they said, “There’s something there, and we’re going to bring it back.”

And they took it up to a nursery in the Bronx in Van Cortlandt Park.  It was nursed back to health.  It left the site in 2002 eight feet tall, broken, scorched and when it was brought back in December 2010 in advance of the opening of the memorial — it was 30 feet tall.  It has grown since then.  And every year it bursts into blossom in spring, and it’s the most magnificent affirmation of the potential for renewal, and that is the message of The Glade.

CONTINI: I do believe that the Survivor Tree which takes you from that point down the pathway to see The Glade is what is so powerful and really represents hope the future. I feel very privileged to have been able to work with both Michael Arad and Peter Walker it is such a wonderful tribute.

GREENWALD:  Absolutely.

CONTINI:  Thank you so much for telling us the story today.

GREENWALD:  Thank you, a pleasure.

CONTINI:  I really appreciate it.

OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data. Thank you to Alice Greenwald and Anita Contini for joining us.

If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Tim McGuirk, Electra Colevas, Ivy Li; music in this episode is from the lower Manhattan Stuyvesant High School choir. They performed, “America the Beautiful,” at the 9/11 Memorial Glade dedication ceremony.

Special thanks to Eric Sheppard.

I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.