The sounds of ground zero

Pope Benedict XVI prays at site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers in New York April 20. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)Ground zero was a quiet place this morning when Pope Benedict XVI stopped to pray. It was Sunday in lower Manhattan, the construction machinery stood immobile and the fog seemed to wrap the city in an eerie silence.

At the entrance we passed men in kilts, members of the Port Authority Police Pipes and Drums Band; they lost three members in the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Along with about 20 other members of our Vatican journalistic pool, I descended 70 feet to the bottom of the crater where the World Trade Center towers once stood. The pope would arrive in 45 minutes. I looked up toward street level and listened. A sea gull’s cry was the only sound that reached us.

A cellist began playing movements from Bach, a mournful music that filled the giant crater. Then the pope appeared, and the photographers standing behind me began clicking away.

The celllist stopped as the pope knelt to pray. Now the shutters clicked in rapid-fire staccato. A heavy lens dropped with a thud. A tripod scraped across our wooden platform. Eventually, however, even the photographers fell silent, and the pope prayed in absolute stillness.

After a brief talk, he greeted 27 people personally, speaking quietly to each one.  Some were survivors, some were relatives of victims. The microphone did not pick up his words. I watched as a woman in a red scarf spent a moment with the pope, then wiped away tears for several minutes.

Toward the end of the ceremony, we heard the sound of an airplane passing overhead. Then the cello’s sorrowful tones returned.

The pope stepped back into his popemobile and rolled up the concrete ramp. As he reached ground level, the unusual sound of bagpipes filtered down to the crater — the Port Authority band. It was a haunting sound.

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