For almost a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks, journalist Maria Alvarez spent nearly all her time at Ground Zero, chronicling for the New York Post the horrors she witnessed firsthand around the towers before they collapsed, and then the grim and gripping aftermath. She watched the heroics and selflessness of emergency responders, the grace and dedication of those who searched for remains, and the remarkable ethic of those who cleaned up amid the dangerous toxins. When the cleanup of the site ended, so did her assignment—and her sense of purpose.
“It was very hard. All my purpose in life for all those months after September 11 came to a halt,” says Alvarez, who came from Bolivia as a young child. “I got assigned to another story, a big trial in Connecticut. I thought, ‘That’s good, it’ll help me forget.’ But it wasn’t the same anymore. I had an insatiable appetite to write about 9/11. I felt anything [else] I was doing was meaningless.”
Now Alvarez, 49, is once again telling the story of September 11 and the heroism she witnessed that day and in the months that followed. But this time she is telling the story as one of nearly 150 volunteers who conduct guided tours of the Tribute World Trade Center Visitor Center.
The volunteer walking tour program began in 2005, a year before the Tribute Center opened. The first group of 17 volunteers guided groups interested in learning about the history and impact of the World Trade Center around the perimeter of the site. Today’s volunteers, who go through training and commit to conducting between two and nine tours a month, engage visitors during walking tours and in the museum’s galleries by sharing their own personal experiences—of survival, loss, and healing—directly related to that fateful day.
“Our volunteers allow the Tribute Center to provide a rare opportunity for visitors to learn through oral histories,” says Tracy Grosner, volunteer program coordinator. “Each individual perspective is different. These personal experiences put a human face on the overwhelming events that shocked the nation and the world.”
More than 40 percent of the visitors to the Tribute Center are international, and of the six languages in which audio tours are offered, Spanish is the language most frequently requested, says Grosner.
Juan Alamo, a 70-year-old volunteer who was born in Cuba, was sworn into the U.S. Army on September 11, 1961, and recalls the many deals he had sealed over the years at the North Tower’s Windows on the World restaurant as a top financial officer of various major investment firms.
“I love this country, everything it did for me,” he says. “This was a horrendous act that was perpetrated on our country. I had to help out.”
He decided to volunteer as a tour guide, encouraged by the hope that he says will come with the rebirth of the area. “There’s rebuilding, a renaissance going on there,” he says. “This country was able to put it back together. There’s hope, there’s tomorrow.”
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