Visitors to New York City who travelled to Ground Zero, the former site of the World Trade Centre, have always seen more than the location of the worst terrorist act on American soil.

Conspiracy theorists, gory picture-book vendors and people wearing T-shirts saying “Everything I needed to know about Islam I learned on 9/11” obscure the searing stories of real people.

Engineer Leokadia Glogowski worked on the 82nd floor of the north tower, just below where the first plane hit.

She talks about a normal day — early morning coffee with her husband, a kiss at the car door — where tiny, unknowable choices made a difference.

Her last-minute change of shoes from high heels to flats, colleagues taking their children to the first day of school, an email from her sister in Poland: detailing how the family would say Thanksgiving prayers to celebrate her survival from a plunging lift in the same tower just a few weeks earlier.

The towers were unfathomably large, with express and local lifts just like the subway. When Lee looked down from her office, she was too high to know whether she needed to carry an umbrella at lunchtime.

There was absolute silence, with just the tinkle of computer keys, when hijacked Flight 11 sliced through nearly six floors at 790km/h.

“A tremendous bang,” she said, “and our tower began to bend to the side, and then it immediately bent to the other.”

Black smoke. Panic.

“I thought: this is the end of my life. I will die,” she said. “I started to pray and begged God that I would have peace in my heart at the moment that I will die.”

Then someone screamed, “Get out!”

Lee grabbed her bag and headed for the stairs. A colleague with a newly-twisted ankle stayed at their desk. “I’ll call 911,” he said, calmly. Dead.

She looked into the smoke, thought about the email, and went.

Victor Guarnera was the chief technical adviser for security systems for the centre and was one of the last to leave the north tower alive. A New Jersey native with the an accent like a Law and Order witness, he unleashed a barrage of facts about structural engineering and the weight of a loaded Boeing 767, and reminded you how the human mind works in a crisis. Oddly.

The hysterical radio calls — “a plane!” — didn’t stop him calmly going through what he was meant to do, even trying to avoid getting wet from the sprinklers in the empty north tower foyer and answering a question from a tenant, a survivor of the 1993 bombing, about how long it would be before they could get back to their offices.

“This is a situation, these towers will last forever,” he remembers thinking, “that’s the mindset,” he said.

These voices, from a tour organised by the Tribute WTC Visitor Centre, are a reminder of the ongoing human impact. In New York it’s harder to avoid, with advertisements for the new memorial and construction of the One World Trade Centre tower that will eventually become the tallest building in America.

But travelling across the US, the tenth anniversary of the attacks has been largely a media event, buried by more bad news about the limp economy.

Omayra Rivera conducts the “Prayers for Peace” service most days at St Paul’s Chapel, next to the site.

“Time makes it a lot easier to talk about it,” she said.

But the weekend’s event — when President Obama will open a memorial — won’t help.

“I think the new memorial will make it worse, it’ll become more of a tourist attraction,” she said. “Here, New York people are tired of the cameras and the publicity. They want it to go away.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey