Reporting Mike Xirinachs
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) - The plot of land known for a decade as “the pile,” “the pit” and “Ground Zero” has opened to the public for the first time since that terrible morning in 2001.
It has been transformed into a memorial consisting of two serene reflecting pools ringed by the chiseled-in-bronze names of the nearly 3,000 souls lost. The 9/11 memorial plaza opened its gates Monday under tight security.
Because visitors had to pre-register, the Memorial Foundation knows their hometowns. Those who made the journey Monday came from 46 of the 50 states and 33 foreign nations.
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The water flowed into the voids where the towers stood, creating a white noise that wrapped Maria Ciccone in a blanket of comfort as she thought about the son who died there.
“It’s so peaceful. I mean I looked at that water, and it makes you feel – all the souls are there,” she told CBS 2′s Tony Aiello.
The Gardner family of Virginia has no special connection to 9/11, but they love visiting New York City and couldn’t wait to experience the memorial.
“I think the design is magnificent. I mean, It tells that we had something that came down, and it was right there and it’s hallowed ground,” Sandra Gardner said.
The first visitors passed through metal detectors before walking among hundreds of white oak trees on the eight-acre site and gazing at the water on the exact spots where the World Trade Center’s twin towers stood.
Visitors can run their fingers over the engraved names of the 2,977 people killed in the terrorist attacks in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, as well as the six slain during the bombing of the trade center in 1993. Electronic directories with a “Find a Name” button will help people locate their loved ones.
Many left with a souvenir rubbing of a name important to them. Jason Barschi made one to give to his aunt, who lost a son.
“She doesn’t have an interest in coming, I think it’s just too painful for her to be here,” he told Aiello.
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The memorial plaza opened to the families of the victims for the first time on Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Eleanor Watkins came from England to visit the reflecting pool and see her brother’s name engraved in bronze on the perimeter.
“It’s just a very appropriate memorial. It’s exceeded my expectations,” she said. “It’s beautiful and respectful.”
Her brother was attending a conference at the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks.
Although thousands of construction workers have come and gone from the site over the years, Monday marks the first time that ordinary Americans without a badge, a press pass or a hard hat are able to walk the grounds where the victims were once entombed in a mountain of smoking rubble.
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“It will do what the terrorists tried to prevent, which is we’ve created a place where, regardless of political stripes, economic class, ethnicity, country of origin, people will be coming together, paying their respects at a place that’s been transformed from one that was noted for such pain … to a place of stunning beauty,” memorial president Joe Daniels said last week as preparations were made for opening day.
Admission is free, but access will continue to be tightly controlled. Visitors need to obtain passes in advance, allowing them to enter at a specified time. No more than about 1,500 at a time will be allowed in.
About 7,000 people were issued tickets for opening day. Some 400,000 have reserved tickets for the coming months, Daniels said.
LINK: Reserve Your Ticket
Much of the memorial complex is still under construction. The museum pavilion, a tilting structure that evokes the sections of the trade center facade that remained standing after the towers fell, is scheduled to open on the 11th anniversary of the attacks.
The underground portion also won’t open until 2012, meaning visitors will have to wait to see sights like the giant slurry wall, built to keep the Hudson River from flooding the trade center’s foundations, or the survivor’s staircase that allowed so many people to flee to safety.
But seeing the names was enough for many of the families.
Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles, was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, cried when she found his name, grouped with other crew members and passengers aboard the flight.
“These are all his crew,” she said. “I know all their families. These passengers, I knew their families. These people are real people to me. It’s very touching to see all these people here together.”
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The cost of the memorial and museum has been put at about $700 million, with an annual operating budget of $50 million to $60 million. The organizers have raised about $400 million from private donations and are seeking federal funds so that the memorial and the museum can be free of charge.
The centerpiece of the memorial is the two giant, square pits and reflecting pools that sit in the footprints of the two towers. The waterfalls cascading down the four walls of each fountain are the largest such fountains in North America.
Skyscrapers are now pushing upward all around the plaza, and the roar of construction will be a constant at the site for some time.
One World Trade Center, the spire once called the Freedom Tower, is now 1,000 feet high and well on its way to becoming the tallest building in the U.S. at 1,776 feet - higher even than the twin towers. The steel skeleton of the new 4 World Trade Center is 47 stories high and counting.
The memorial foundation has arranged for a separate entrance for relatives of the victims and plans to set aside certain days or hours where the plaza will be open only to firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers.
“I think people will have that very special feeling of stepping on ground that the public has not in the last 10 years,” Daniels said.
As for the tight security, he said: “It’s an inconvenience, but if you think about any site in the world, I think this is a place that people will expect to go through some security.”
(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)