NEW YORK – The plot of land that has been known for a decade as "the pile," ''the pit" and "ground zero" will welcome the public Monday for the first time since that terrible morning in 2001, and visitors will find a place transformed from the gray ruins place so seared into our collective imagination.
The National 9/11 Memorial & Museum planned to open its gates at 10 a.m., under fairly tight security, and allow a few thousand people to walk among hundreds of white oak trees on an 8-acre plaza and gaze at the two enormous fountains where the World Trade Center's twin towers once stood.
Visitors will also be able to run their fingertips over the names of the 2,977 people killed in the terrorist attacks in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, as well as the six slain during the bombing of the trade center in 1993. The names, etched in bronze, will ring the two pits.
The tree-adorned memorial plaza at ground zero opened to the families of the victims and assorted dignitaries for the first time Sunday, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
After locating the name of her sister in the bronze of the massive reflecting pool where the World Trade Center's south tower once stood, Salma Simjee was comforted by the knowledge it had a lasting place. Yet it was not enough to ease her heartache.
"I would rather not see her name there," said the Fresno, Calif., woman, who had traveled to New York City to mourn her sister, Nasima H. Simjee, a financial analyst killed in the 9/11 attacks. "But it's here."
Like so many of the hundreds of family members visiting the 9/11 memorial for the first time Sunday, Simjee was torn between wanting to celebrate that the victims now have a permanent memorial and the knowledge that there remained a void in their lives.
Her cousin, Sufia Simjee, of Baltimore, Md., said that at least they now have a place to leave flowers for Nasima — all the more important since they have never received her remains. "It gives us a place to honor her," she said.
Although thousands of construction workers have come and gone from the site over the years, Monday marks the first time that ordinary Americans without a badge, a press pass or a hard hat, will be able to walk the grounds.
"It will do what the terrorists tried to prevent, which is we've created a place where, regardless of political stripes, economic class, ethnicity, country of origin, people will be coming together, paying their respects at a place that's been transformed from one that was noted for such pain ... to a place of stunning beauty," memorial president Joe Daniels said as preparations were made for opening day last week.
It may be awhile yet before the memorial becomes truly reconnected with the city.
For now, public access to the site will be tightly controlled. Visitors will need to obtain passes in advance, allowing them to enter only at a reserved time. Security screening will be similar to the procedure at airports and courthouses. Visitors will have to empty their pockets, walk through a metal detector and send their handbags and backpacks through an X-ray machine.
Much of the memorial complex is still closed, and will remain so for another year. The museum pavilion, a tilting structure that subtly evokes the sections of the trade center facade that remained standing after the towers fell, is scheduled to open on the 11th anniversary of the attacks.
The underground portion of the site also won't open until 2012, meaning visitors will have to wait to see remarkable sights like the giant slurry wall, built to keep the Hudson River from flooding the trade center's foundations, or the survivor's staircase that allowed so many people to flee to safety.
But seeing the names was enough for many of the families.
"It breaks me up," said David Martinez, who watched the attacks happen from his office in Manhattan, and later learned that he had lost a cousin and a brother — one in each tower.
Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles, was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, cried when she found his name, grouped with other crew and passengers aboard the flight.
"These are all his crew," she said. "I know all their families. These passengers, I knew their families. These people are real people to me. It's very touching to see all these people here together."
The centerpiece of the memorial, the two giant, square pits and reflecting pools that sit in the footprints of the two towers, is a marvel. The waterfalls cascading down the four walls of each fountain are the largest such fountains in North America.
Maybe just as striking are the huge towers now pushing up toward the sky all around the plaza. One World Trade Center, the spire nicknamed the Freedom Tower, is now 1,000 feet high, and is well on its way to becoming the tallest building in the U.S. The steel skeleton of the new 4 World Trade Center is 47 stories high, and counting. Construction cranes sprout and sparks fly where workers are building a new rail hub.
The roar of construction will be a constant at the site for some time, but it is large enough, and open enough, that people standing in the memorial plaza may feel inspired by the march of progress, rather than overwhelmed by its noisy energy.
Some 400,000 people have already reserved tickets in the coming months, Daniels said. The memorial foundation has arranged for a separate entrance for relatives of the victims, and is planning on setting aside certain days or hours where the plaza will only be open to firefighters, police officers, and other emergency service workers from agencies that lost someone in the attacks.
"Once on the plaza, I think people will have that very special feeling of stepping on ground that the public has not in the last 10 years," he said.
If there is one defeat amid all the hope in the reconstruction of ground zero, it is that the terror inspired by the attacks still hasn't entirely released its grip on the city. The designers of the monumental space had envisioned it as one of the city's great public places, a status it can't attain until the security restrictions fade. That day will come, just not right away.
"It's an inconvenience, but if you think about any site in the world, I think this is a place that people will expect to go through some security," Daniels said.