Rebuilt after 9/11, World Trade Center threatened anew by coronavirus

By Daniel Trotta and Gabriella Borter

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As the ruins of New York’s World Trade Center smoldered following the September 11 attacks of 2001, skeptics doubted it could ever rise again.

Now, as the 19th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the grand vision set forth after its destruction has largely been realized. But the rebuilt World Trade Center complex is under threat anew – this time, from a microscopic virus.

“People are much more worried about someone coughing on them than someone blowing up a building,” said Vishal Garg, chief executive of mortgage refinance startup Better.com, headquartered at 7 World Trade Center adjacent to the site known as Ground Zero.

After the Twin Towers and surrounding buildings were destroyed by al Qaeda hijackers, killing 2,753 of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day, the economy of lower Manhattan was devastated.

But a plan was born, and a lengthy metamorphosis turned the disaster zone into a giant pit, then a walled-off construction site, and finally, some $25 billion later, a tourist attraction and business center with three skyscrapers, a transportation hub, a museum and a memorial.

The coronavirus pandemic has stalled its completion, with a performing arts center under construction and a fourth and final skyscraper planned. Six months after New York City began shutting down due to COVID-19, the World Trade Center and the once-bustling Financial District are now eerily devoid of crowds.

“It’s pretty melancholy. A bit gloomy,” said James Busse, a retail stock broker taking a cigarette break nearby.

Ground Zero became both a solemn memorial and a leisure destination. Choked-up visitors to the 9/11 museum or memorial could step onto an esplanade of children eating ice cream or out-of-town visitors admiring the glass-sheathed towers.

One World Trade Center, America’s tallest building at 1,776 feet (541 meters), was built with a bomb-resistant base, as the old World Trade Center had been attacked in a truck bombing in 1993.

The vision laid out in Daniel Libeskind’s 2003 master plan drove a renaissance that has diversified the local economy, previously reliant on finance.

The public and private sectors have invested some $25 billion in reconstruction, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land.

“Everybody coming to New York wants to come to Ground Zero,” Libeskind said in an interview. “It is the center of New York. It is the great public space.”

At its heart are two reflecting pools designed by Michael Arad, marking the footprints of where the Twin Towers once stood, with a pair of four-sided waterfalls draining into an abyss. The names of the victims are etched into its bronze borders.

Pre-pandemic, hundreds of visitors would gather there. But on a recent afternoon a family from Wichita, Kansas, were the only people at the south tower pool.

TWIN TOWER NOSTALGIA

Nostalgia over the Twin Towers grew after they were destroyed along with so many innocent lives, but they were unloved in their time.

Completed in the 1970’s, the World Trade Center replaced a neighborhood known as Radio Row with an oversized block containing the Twin Towers and little else. The site was frequently called a “windswept plaza.”

“The problem with the World Trade Center is that it never really was that good,” said Carl Weisbrod, a former city planning official who worked on the redevelopment of the new site. “What’s emerged is a central business district that is now a model for the 21st Century as opposed to a sort of a historical artifact of the 20th Century.”

Planning the new site stirred public emotions associated with the attack on the United States, the loss of life and fears of working in tall buildings again.

Critics say the end result still lacks affordable housing and lament the absence of a direct rail link to major regional airports. Architectural critics have called One World Trade Center lackluster.

But there is agreement that, considering all the interests and complexities, it works.

“They did a really wonderful job of knitting it back in the city, but still honoring that sacred site,” said Leslie Koch, president of the complex’s Performing Arts Center.

THE MOVERS ARE HERE

In New York’s vertigo-inducing real estate market, prices rarely drop except after events like 9/11 or a recession, and prices are falling again now.

Downtown Manhattan rents are down 1.4% through July, the largest annualized fall since 2010, said Nancy Wu, an economist with the real estate database StreetEasy.

As of 2019, the neighborhood’s rental market was the city’s fastest-growing. But the inventory of available apartments rose 80 percent this July from a year earlier, Wu said.

Guy Khan,  director of banking at a financial services company, said the downturn was apparent around his home near City Hall, with chain stores and mom-and-pops closing and neighbors fleeing for the suburbs.

“You see moving trucks every day,” he said.

Developer Larry Silverstein acquired a 99-year lease on the Twin Towers from the Port Authority for $3.2 billion just six weeks before 9/11. He has spent the past 19 years rebuilding.

In 2015, Silverstein forecast the entire site would be rebuilt by 2020, but that changed after the planned anchor tenant for 2 World Trade Center pulled out.

“Life is so unpredictable,” he said.

Silverstein and Libeskind, the master planner, see the pandemic as a temporary pause in downtown Manhattan’s ascendance, noting how predictions of decline after 9/11 proved wrong.

“People said New York will never come back. And it’s the same thing during the pandemic,” Libeskind said. “But I don’t believe it. New York is too resilient,” .

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Gabriella Borter; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Hurricane Michael tears Florida towns apart, 6 dead

An American flag flies amongst rubble left in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Devika Krishna Kumar

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Michael’s violence was visible on Thursday in shattered Florida coastal towns, where rows of homes were ripped from foundations and roofs were peeled off schools by the near-record-force storm blamed for six deaths.

Michael smashed into Florida’s northwest coast near the small town of Mexico Beach on Wednesday with screeching 155 mile per hour (250 kilometer per hour) winds, pushing a wall of seawater inland.

“The wind was really tearing us apart. It was so scary you’d poo yourself,” said retiree Tom Garcia, 60, who was trapped inside his Mexico Beach home as water poured in to waist height.

He and his partner Cheri Papineau, 50, pushed on their door for an hour in an effort to stop the storm surge bursting in as their four dogs sat on top of a bed floating through their home.

Video shot by CNN from a helicopter showed homes closest to the water in Mexico Beach had lost all but their foundations. A few blocks inland, about half the homes were reduced to piles of wood and siding and those still standing had suffered heavy damage.

Michael, the third most powerful hurricane ever to hit the U.S. mainland, weakened overnight to a tropical storm and pushed northeast on Thursday, bringing drenching rains to Georgia and the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month.

Rubble left in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael is pictured in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Rubble left in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael is pictured in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Michael killed at least six people in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina from falling trees and other hurricane-related incidents, officials and local media said.

The injured in Florida were taken to hospitals in Tallahassee, with some hurt after the storm by breaking tree limbs and falls, said Allison Castillo, director of emergency services at the city’s Capital Regional Medical Center.

Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called Mexico Beach, which has a population of about 1,200, “ground zero” for the hurricane damage.

In Panama City, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Mexico Beach, buildings were crushed and boats were scattered around. Michael left a trail of utility wires on roads, flattened tall pine trees and knocked a steeple from a church.

Al Hancock, 45, who works on a tour boat, survived in Panama City with his wife and dog.

“The roof fell in but we lived through it,” he said.

Nearly 950,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida, Alabama, the Carolinas and Georgia on Thursday.

DAMAGE ‘WAY WORSE’ THAN EXPECTED

Florida Governor Rick Scott told the Weather Channel the damage from Panama City down to Mexico Beach was “way worse than anybody ever anticipated.”

At Jinks Middle School in Panama City, the storm tore off part of the gym roof and one wall, leaving the wooden floor covered in water. A year ago the school welcomed students and families displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Rubble left in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael is pictured in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Rubble left in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael is pictured in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

“The kids live nearby. The second floor of some apartments are just gone. Roofs are gone,” Principal Britt Smith told CNN after talking by phone with some of those who did not evacuate.

Michael, a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale when it came ashore, was causing flash flooding on Thursday in parts of North Carolina and Virginia, where some areas could get as much as 9 inches (23 cm) of rain, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

By 2 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT), the storm had pushed northeast to within 25 miles (40 km) of Greensboro, North Carolina, carrying 50-mph (85-kph) winds, the NHC said.

The number of people in emergency shelters was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by Friday, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross.

‘ROOF-HIGH’ FLOODING

Michael pummeled communities across the Panhandle and turned streets into roof-high waterways.

Twenty miles (32 km) south of Mexico Beach, floodwaters were more than 7 feet (2.1 meters) deep near Apalachicola, a town of about 2,300 residents, hurricane center chief Ken Graham said. Wind damage was also evident.

“Our biggest thing is the downed lines and the downed trees and now this water main issue,” said Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson, referring to a burst water main complicating efforts to restore power.

Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department, said Michael had severely damaged cotton, timber, pecan and peanuts, causing estimated liabilities as high as $1.9 billion and affecting up to 3.7 million crop acres (1.5 million hectares).

Michael also disrupted energy operations in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico as it approached land, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 percent and natural gas output by nearly one-third as offshore platforms were evacuated.

With a low barometric pressure recorded at 919 millibars, a measure of a hurricane’s force, Michael was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Florida; Additional reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Tallahassee, Florida; Gina Cherelus and Scott DiSavino in New York; Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Gary McWilliams and Liz Hampton in Houston, Andrew Hay in New Mexico and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Frances Kerry and Bill Berkrot)

Families remember 9/11 victims 15 years after attacks

Honor guard observing silence for 9/11

By Melissa Fares

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Americans remembered the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on Sunday at a ceremony marking 15 years, with the recital of their names, tolling church bells and a tribute in lights at the site where New York City’s massive twin towers collapsed.

As classical music drifted across the 9/11 Memorial plaza in lower Manhattan, family members and first responders slowly read the names and delivered personal memories of the almost 3,000 victims killed in the worst attack on U.S. soil since the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Relatives in the crowd embraced and some held photos of loved ones and signs that read: “Never to be forgotten,” “We miss you,” and “Gone too soon.”

Tom Acquarviva’s 29-year-old son Paul was one of 658 employees of financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald who perished after the first plane struck the north tower just below where they worked on the 101st to 105th floors.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t remember him,” Acquarviva told Reuters.

Angela Checo honored her brother, Pedro Francisco, 35, who was a vice president at investment and wealth manager Fiduciary Trust on the 96th floor of the south tower.

“He was coming down but forgot someone and went back upstairs to save them,” Checo said. “That’s why he never made it down.”

The ceremony paused for six moments of silence: four to mark the exact times four hijacked planes were crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon near Washington D.C., and a Pennsylvania field. The last two record when the North and South towers of the Trade Center crumpled.

It was held by two reflecting pools with waterfalls that now stand in the towers’ former footprints, and watched over by an honor guard of police and firefighters.

More than 340 firefighters and 60 police were killed on the that sunny Tuesday morning in 2001. Many of the first responders died while running up stairs in the hope of reaching victims trapped on the towers’ higher floors.

“PIECE OF THEIR HEART”

At the Pentagon, a trumpet played as U.S. President Barack Obama took part in a wreath-laying ceremony.

“Fifteen years may seem like a long time. But for the families who lost a piece of their heart that day, I imagine it can seem like just yesterday,” Obama said.

No public officials spoke at the New York ceremony, in keeping with a tradition that began in 2012. But many dignitaries attended, including Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

Trump said in a statement that it was a day of sadness and remembrance, but also of resolve.

“Our solemn duty on behalf of all those who perished … is to work together as one nation to keep all of our people safe from an enemy that seeks nothing less than to destroy our way of life,” Trump said.

Clinton said in a statement that the horror of Sept. 11, 2001 would never be forgotten, and paid tribute to the victims and first responders.

She fell ill after about 90 minutes at the service, becoming “overheated,” aides said, and was taken to her daughter Chelsea’s apartment in Manhattan. She emerged later and told reporters she was “feeling great.”

TRIBUTE IN LIGHT

Houses of worship throughout the city had tolled their bells at 8:46 a.m. EDT (1246 GMT), the time American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower.

A second pause came at 9:03 a.m. (1303 GMT), when United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower. American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. (1337 GMT), then the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. (1359 GMT).

At 10:03 a.m. (1403 GMT) United Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the final moment of silence was observed at 10:28 a.m. (1428 GMT) when the North Tower fell.

As evening falls across New York City on Sunday, scores of 7,000-watt xenon light bulbs will project two giant beams of blue light into the night sky to represent the fallen twin towers, fading away at dawn.

The “Tribute in Light” was first set up in 2002, six months after the attacks, and has become part of the annual memorial service. The beams reach four miles (6.4 km) into the sky and can be seen as far as 60 miles (96.6 km) away on a clear night, organizers say.

In the twin towers’ place now rises the 104-story 1 World Trade Center. Also known as the Freedom Tower, it is the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere, at 1,776 feet (541 meters). Fifteen years after the attack, the U.S. government marked its return to the site on Friday, moving its New York City offices there.

Nineteen hijackers died in the attack, later claimed by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, which led directly to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and indirectly to the invasion of Iraq.

In Kabul, the top American commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, paid tribute to members of the NATO-led coalition and Afghan security forces who had been killed since the Taliban regime fell.

But in an address which touched on his own experience as an officer in Afghanistan, stretching back a decade, he also underlined how far from peace the country remains.

“As we know, sadly, the number of terrorist groups has only grown since 9/11,” he said. “Of the 98 groups now designated globally, 20 are in this region, the Afpak region.”

(Reporting by Melissa Fares; Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington and James Mackenzie in Kabul; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Jeffrey Benkoe)

U.S. House votes to allow Sept. 11 families to sue Saudi Arabia

Firefighter walks amid the 9/11 rubble

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Friday that would allow the families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia’s government for damages, despite the White House’s threat to veto the measure.

The U.S. Senate in May unanimously passed the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act,” known as JASTA. The bill’s passage in the House by voice vote, two days before the 15th anniversary of the attacks that killed about 3,000 people, was greeted with cheers and applause in the chamber.

“We can no longer allow those who injure and kill Americans to hide behind legal loopholes, denying justice to the victims of terrorism,” said Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers who crashed airliners in New York, outside Washington and in Pennsylvania were Saudi nationals. The Saudi government, which strongly denies responsibility, has lobbied against the bill.

Opponents of the measure said it could strain relations with Saudi Arabia and lead to retaliatory laws that would allow foreign nationals to sue Americans for alleged involvement in terrorist attacks.

The White House on Friday reiterated that President Barack Obama would veto the bill. [nW1N12802E]

If Obama carries out that threat and the required two-thirds of both the Republican-majority House and Senate still support the bill, it would be the first time since Obama’s presidency began in 2009 that Congress had overridden a veto.

The House passed the measure by voice vote, without objections or recorded individual votes. That could make it easier for Obama’s fellow Democrats to uphold his veto later without officially changing their positions.

JASTA would remove sovereign immunity, preventing lawsuits against governments, for countries found to be involved in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. It also would allow survivors, and relatives of those killed in them to seek damages from other countries.

In this case, it would allow suits to proceed in federal court in New York as lawyers try to prove that the Saudis were involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Backers say passage is long overdue. They argue that if Saudi Arabia, or any other government, is innocent of involvement in attacks, they have nothing to fear from the legislation.

A member of the French parliament, Pierre Lellouche, said he would consider such legislation in France, and would anticipate it elsewhere, if the final version of JASTA does not include waivers for countries that are U.S. allies and actively involved in fighting terrorism.

“It may trigger similar acts all over the place, and then you enter into a ‘state of jungle’ where everybody sues everybody,” Lellouche, who runs a parliamentary committee on international law, told reporters on a conference call on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Grant McCool and Will Dunham)