WASHINGTON – Anyplace else, the scarred concrete steps would be an eyesore. At ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, they were a last chance for escape. Now they stand as the last surviving above-ground piece of the World Trade Center.
The "Survivors Staircase," as the steps are known, was named one of the nation's most endangered historic places Wednesday, along with whole swaths of New Orleans and Mississippi damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
By singling out the staircase and sections of the South, the National Trust for Historic Preservation seeks to preserve areas hardest hit by the two biggest American disasters of this decade. Katrina, noted Trust president Richard Moe, "damaged more historic homes than any event in the history of the country."
To Sept. 11 survivor Patty Clark, the Trade Center staircase is "symbolic of all of us who were witnesses to that day. It's still strong, somewhat damaged, but that's kind of like we all are."
Clark and other employees of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey used the staircase to escape Tower 2 after the terror attacks in New York.
She had already walked down 65 flights of stairs when she got to the World Trade Center plaza. Debris from Tower 1, which had just collapsed, filled the plaza, leaving the open-air staircase as their only way out. She and other Port Authority employees followed the stairs down to ground level at Vesey Street, and raced north, escaping just minutes before their own tower collapsed.
"For people who got out of the building, it was by steps, so steps are very important to the people who lived," she said.
Clark is part of a group of survivors seeking to preserve the staircase, though current ground zero development plans do not include the stairway. Defenders of the stairs say they could live with seeing it moved in order to preserve it, as long as it isn't placed far from its original site.
Moe said that in all the talk of rebuilding ground zero, most people still don't know the staircase remains, since it is closed to the public. "It's an enormously important artifact," he said.
Also included on the Trust's new list of endangered historic places are historic towns along the Mississippi coast — including the retirement home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Pascagoula's La-Point-Krebs House — and areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina.
"Katrina represents the greatest cultural disaster in the history of the country, in addition to being a great human disaster," said Moe.
Also named by the group were whole sections of New Orleans, including the lower Ninth Ward, Mid-City, Holy Cross and South Lakeview.
"We're not talking about the expensive homes, we're talking about the low and moderate income homes, the shotgun cottages, the Creole homes. This is the heart and soul of New Orleans," he said.
Moe said the rest of the country "has unfortunately moved on from Katrina, and we need to remind people that we need to stick with this."
Also named to the most endangered list were: Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building in Washington, D.C.; Blair Mountain Battlefield in Logan County, W. Va.; Doo Wop Motels in Wildwood, N.J.; Fort Snelling Upper Post in Hennepin County, Minn.; Kenilworth, Ill.; Kootenai Lodge in Bigfork, Mont.; Mission San Miguel Arcangel in San Miguel, Calif.; Over-the-Rhine Neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Kenilworth, a northern suburb of Chicago, was chosen as an example of the intense development pressure to tear down early 20th century homes and replace them with what the group decries as hulking McMansions.
"It's a phenomenon we're seeing everywehere I go, and it's probably the most pervasive threat to historic communities," said Moe.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is a private non-profit group founded in 1949.