Panetta Visits 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero

NEW YORK, Sept. 6, 2011 — Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta today toured the Nation­al Sep­tem­ber 11 Memo­r­i­al and Muse­um site here.

“This Sun­day, the nation marks the tenth anniver­sary of 9/11, the worst ter­ror­ist attack in the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States,” the sec­re­tary told reporters. “We will hon­or those who died at the Pen­ta­gon, 184 of them, but I thought it was also appro­pri­ate to come here and hon­or those, near­ly 3,000, who died here in New York City.” Panet­ta is the first cab­i­net offi­cer to vis­it the site. New York May­or Michael Bloomberg wel­comed the sec­re­tary to the site and accom­pa­nied him dur­ing his vis­it.

Low­er Manhattan’s ground zero is still a con­struc­tion zone, with hard-hat­ted work­ers, cranes and heavy equip­ment all busy on new build­ings near the for­mer site of the two tow­ers.

The area where the tow­ers stood, how­ev­er, will open as part of the memo­r­i­al to the pub­lic this Sept. 11, — the tenth anniver­sary of the attacks that killed 2,996 peo­ple after ter­ror­ist hijack­ers crashed four pas­sen­ger jets: one into each of the tow­ers, one into the Pen­ta­gon, and one into a field near Shanksville, Pa., short of its like­ly Wash­ing­ton, D.C., tar­get.

The 8-acre memo­r­i­al cen­ters on the sites of the for­mer tow­ers, now trans­formed to square, gran­ite reflect­ing pools, each about an acre in size. Each pool is fed by 4 30-foot water­falls that descend from ground lev­el, and the pools drain into what memo­r­i­al staff mem­bers describe as a “cen­ter void” at the bot­tom of each.

The theme the pools rep­re­sent is “reflect­ing absence,” accord­ing to memo­r­i­al offi­cials.

The water­falls are edged with bronze ledges about waist-high, inscribed with the names of all the vic­tims who died in the 2001 attacks, as well as the six peo­ple killed dur­ing the 1993 World Trade Cen­ter bomb­ing.

The ter­ror­ist attacks of a decade ago brought the nation togeth­er in a com­mit­ment that such hor­ror “will nev­er hap­pen again,” Panet­ta said.

“As trag­ic as 9/11 was, we have drawn tremen­dous inspi­ra­tion [from it],” he said, adding that those who attacked the Unit­ed States in an attempt to weak­en the coun­try actu­al­ly made it stronger.

The day of the attacks, Panet­ta said, he was on Capi­tol Hill brief­ing mem­bers of Con­gress on ocean issues. After remain­ing in Wash­ing­ton for a few days, he rent­ed a car and drove across the coun­try to his home in Cal­i­for­nia.

“It … was an inter­est­ing dri­ve,” Panet­ta said. “It gave me a chance to see how the rest of the coun­try came togeth­er after 9/11.”

Dri­ving through the Mid­west, he saw “God bless Amer­i­ca” signs. “It just told you a lot about what this country’s made of,” he said.

Con­trast­ing ground zero today with the dev­as­ta­tion he viewed short­ly after the attacks, Panet­ta said, shows the resilience of the coun­try and the city.

“I think this is going to be a spe­cial place,” he said of New York City’s 9/11 memo­r­i­al and muse­um, “for peo­ple to … come to and remind them­selves not only of the sac­ri­fice that was made, but also the great strength the Amer­i­can peo­ple have in com­ing back.”

Dur­ing his vis­it to ground zero, Panet­ta also toured the Memo­r­i­al Muse­um, which is sched­uled to open next year on Sept. 11. Sev­en of the museum’s 10 sto­ries are under­ground, and part of the above-ground struc­ture will dis­play struc­tur­al com­po­nents recov­ered after the tow­ers fell.

Sarah Lipp­man, a mem­ber of the memo­r­i­al staff, told reporters the site will also fea­ture 400 swamp white oak trees, more than 200 of which already are in place. The leaves of swamp white oaks typ­i­cal­ly start chang­ing col­or around the time of the anniver­sary, she said, and the trees are expect­ed to grow from their cur­rent height of about 25 feet to an even­tu­al 60 feet.

Also on the site is the “sur­vivor tree,” a pear tree found alive at the site after the attacks and nursed back to health at a near­by nurs­ery, Lipp­man said.

Five ser­vice mem­bers who enlist­ed since 9/11 accom­pa­nied Panet­ta on today’s vis­it. They are:

— Army Staff Sgt. Ryan M. Celko, who enlist­ed in the Army in 2004 and deployed twice with the 10th Moun­tain Division’s 4th Base Sup­port Team Bat­tal­ion out of Fort Polk, La. He is from Mid­dle­sex, N.J.

— Navy Lt. Adam C. Jones enrolled in the U.S. Naval Acad­e­my in 2002 and earned his com­mis­sion in 2006. His was the first class to enroll after 9/11. He is from Annapo­lis, Md.

— Marine Corps Sgt. Car­los A. Tovar enlist­ed in March 2008. Orig­i­nal­ly from Cara­cas, Venezuela, he became a U.S. cit­i­zen while serv­ing in the Marine Corps. He is from Orlan­do, Fla.

— Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Gutier­rez Jr. enlist­ed in 2002 fol­low­ing grad­u­a­tion from South­west­ern Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege. He was wound­ed by ene­my fire on his sec­ond deploy­ment. He is from Chu­la Vista, Calif.

— Coast Guard Lt. Nikea L. Nat­teal grad­u­at­ed from the U.S. Coast Guard Acad­e­my in 2006 as part of the first class to enroll fol­low­ing 9/11. She is from Yuma, Ariz.

Gutier­rez told reporters the vis­it to ground zero “remind­ed me why I enlist­ed.”

Gutier­rez said he tried to enlist the day after the attacks, but the recruit­ing sta­tions were closed. When they reopened, a wait­ing list quick­ly formed because of the rush of peo­ple want­i­ng to sign up for the mil­i­tary, he said, and his own enlist­ment was final about six months after the attacks.

America’s great­est strength is high­light­ed by its ser­vice mem­bers, Panet­ta said. And the young peo­ple in uni­form trav­el­ing with him today, he added, rep­re­sent the ser­vice they and their fel­low sol­diers, sailors, air­men, Marines and Coast Guards­men have giv­en to the nation.

“Since 9/11, we have achieved sig­nif­i­cant suc­cess going after al-Qai­da and …[its] lead­er­ship,” Panet­ta said, adding that, nev­er­the­less, it’s crit­i­cal to main­tain pres­sure on the ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion.

The sec­re­tary was sched­uled to trav­el from New York to Shanksville, Pa., and the Flight 93 Memo­r­i­al there, also set to open Sun­day. That seg­ment of his trav­el was can­celled due to weath­er.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)