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A visit to Ground Zero - Bob Paslay

I had not given much thought to how I would feel when I finally stood at the stark open space that once housed the World Trade Center.

I was at the center on and off for a week in April of 2001 buying half price theater tickets and shopping at a book store there.

I had not been back since Sept. 11 and for no other reason than my schedule didn't work out that way. So this past weekend, I went to New York City for a few days of r and r. I rode the E train down to the site. It used to come out right under the Twin Towers and now stops a few blocks away. I approached the site and there were about 50 people all lined up around the fence that surrounds the site.

I stood there in late afternoon cool, the sun beside some of the neighboring buildings. And then suddenly standing quietly by myself, I was hit with a surge of emotion. It all came back, the memories of people moving through the wide corridors, the escalators leading up to the upper floors, the people eating lunch in the large food courts.

I really had not prepared myself to have this wave of sadness roll over me. I choked back any emotion and then just stood and stared.

I believe if you never went to the World Trade Center and experienced its massively beautiful simplistic architecture or hustled and bustled through it, you could never understand the stark emptiness of the big fenced area I was staring at.

I remember many years ago going to the Eternal Flame at President Kennedy's grave, standing in reverent silence and having some high school kids coming up and joking about toasting marshmallows. I raced from anger to sympathy to understanding in four seconds flat that day, saving a kid a broken nose. I realized that you have to experience it to gain that internal sense of loss and sadness.

When I visited the World Trade Center after the 1993 bombing, I remember the extremely tight security. They checked you at every escalator. Concrete barriers outside kept anyone from parking in the lot right next to one of the towers. Vendors and their carts were pushed further back. I had never been to a communist country or been anywhere that searching and watching was the norm and it seemed so strange.

And then on this April day in 2001, it was all back to normal. Vendors were back selling close to the buildings. Cars were back parking closer to the buildings. No one noticed as you walked about or got on elevators. Everyone was just hustling and bustling as if nothing had happened. I remember thinking that you can't stay on alert forever.

When I walked through the security at Hartsfield-Jackson, I pulled off my shoes and made sure I was abiding by all the new rules. What had seemed strange once now seemed normal.

But when I was flying back, I was waiting at the boarding gate and a knapsack was next to a woman passenger who was leaning on a cane. When the airline employee escorted her to the plane early I said she had forgotten her knapsack. But it wasn't hers. I said I didn't notice who left it. The employee made announcements but no one responded. She unzipped it,

looked for identification and then stored it behind the kiosk where she was standing. No bomb-sniffing dogs, no rush of security to this unattended bag. And I thought again, no matter how much we try, our natural tendency is to not stay on alert every split second. It's hard to do that. We are a trusting people.

But I guess deep down we have been profoundly altered. I look at people on the airplane as we are boarding. I wonder what's in that knapsack near me that is unattended. I search for what I consider lapses in security and wonder if I should point them out. Where is the suggestion box at the airport to do my part for security?

I have now experienced the loss of the World Trade Center up close and personal. I came back and looked at all the picture books and remembered the horrors of that day. And like the loss of a member of the family, I guess I will always remember.

Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor of the News Daily and Daily Herald and can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 257 or at bpaslay@news-daily.com .