Not one, but three pairs of outsized scissors were used to cut the outsized blue ribbon, signaling the official opening of what only a few in attendance were likely to recognize as a combination church-temple-mosque on high.
For most of the people witnessing the ceremony and waiting on line, this was no doubt exactly what the words over the entrance said it was.
“ONE WORLD OBSERVATORY.”
They likely took the words on the news ribbon above the ticket booth as referring just to the view.
“See Forever…See Forever…See Forever.”
The first ticketholder in line outside 1 World Trade Center on Friday morning was 29 year-old Rob Fenton, on a four day visit from Leicestershire in Britain.
“I came just for this,” he said.
He was a tourist who had come to New York’s newest tourist attraction.
“The most important destination in the world,” David Checketts, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Legends, the company that operates the observatory, was telling the press.
Checketts added that imagineers from Disney and Universal Studio had been recruited for the project.
“We needed to create content,” Checketts said. “We had empty floors, empty elevators.”
Fenton descended the escalator to the below ground level and passed through one of a bank of metal detectors into the Global Welcome Center, where an outsized video screen flashed welcomes in various languages along with the hometowns of the visitors.
Fenton is in his family’s construction business back in Leicestershire, so he had added reason to be appreciative as he proceeded past a video exhibit called Voices. Video screens offered brief testimonies by various people who helped build the tallest tower in New York.
Just beyond was a wall of fake stone that looked more like something out of the Flintstones than the Manhattan bedrock it was supposed to represent.
Then came a bank of five elevators, dubbed Sky Pods, outwardly no different than those at any office building.
But as the doors closed and the ascent began, the three walls proved to be floor to ceiling LED screens presenting what Legends terms “a virtual time-lapse that recreates the development of New York City’s skyline from the 1500s to present day.”
As the elevator zoomed skyward, the POV of the screens grew ever higher and time advanced ever further from the pre-Dutch days to when the city’s highest spires were churches and on to the age of skyscrapers.
The striped exterior of the twin towers appeared on the far wall, but vanished in seconds in keeping with their proportionate duration on the timeline.
The towers were gone before you really knew they were there, sparing folks from pondering a day of horror that in this temporal warp was not even a blink.
Steel beams began to appear on the screens. This twin-less new tower assembled itself around the elevator just as you reached the top.
“It’s not just an elevator ride,” the CEO Checketts had said below
The trip from earliest New York to the New York of now, from the lower level to the 102nd floor had taken just 47 seconds in actual time.
But, you had no sense of having really gone anywhere as you stepped into a dimly lit, windowless area of surprisingly ordinary dimensions, filled with music that caused one visitor to ask, “What’s with the mystery?”
The visitors proceeded to the See Forever Theatre—“See Forever” having been trademarked—for a two-minute video featuring 3-D images of New York.
Finally, they continued into the observatory, with floor to ceiling windows offering a view that was startlingly actual.
They really had reached the summit. They really were standing this high in the air, gazing out, with a small plane flying below where they stood.
Perhaps to justify the $32 admission fee, Legends had felt compelled to offer more than these portals. The space itself featured three restaurants of increasing expense, the priciest of which Checketts termed “a New York steakhouse experience.”
There were also interactive diversions such as a “skyline concierge” where “global ambassadors” deliver spiels about New York while standing under a ring of video monitors that offer images of the city’s landmarks and neighborhoods.
There was also a circular space called the Sky Portal, a kind of monumental navel where visitors view real-time video of the street more than 1,200 feet below.
But it was still really all about the windows.
Everything else was just the stuff of Disney World.
To step up to this plate glass and gaze out was to behold a true marvel.
If you had been down at the World Trade Center on 9/11, you would now have been most deeply stirred not by what you beheld but by what you did not.
There was only empty space where the twin towers had been.
The two memorial pools far below marked where they had stood, the waters sparkling in the sun of a morning as perfect as that morning now more than 13 years past.
The edges of these pools bear the names of those who died that day, including those poor souls who had stood at windows exactly this high and jumped rather than burn.
As witnessed by those us below who watched from just about where the new tower now stands, the jumpers fell for as long as 9 seconds. A number of us cried out as if it could have made a difference.
“God, no! ... Oh, God! ... Please God, no!”
Some of us imagined that the people must have been unconscious. But they were no doubt as hyper awake as skydivers right to that instant when they suddenly transformed from a whole, living and unique human being into a vividly red spatter.
After the mind-blanking shock of witnessing such a thing began to wear off, you were left with the question of what had happened to everything this person had been, to the loves and hopes and desires and dreams and fears, to the strengths and weaknesses, the talents and the quirks.
That allness could not have just been instantly reduced to blood and tissue on pavement. It had to have gone somewhere.
If that splatter had once been somebody you loved, you tried to hold that person in you. And you felt them there as you stood at one of the downtown facing windows on Friday and gazed down to the tower’s footprints and then up at the vast emptiness.
You really could see forever, forever itself, the timeline that would continue on and on and on without thousands of people who had been lost here.
You remembered the cries to God and you figured that those who jumped must have been crying out those same words, whatever their faith.
And that was when the observatory felt like a church and a temple and a mosque, a place of most holy contemplation.
You tried not to think of them falling or of their terror before they jumped but of what they had been on other mornings, when they had stood as whole and unworried as the observatory visitors now around you.
Over by one of the uptown windows, you saw a couple standing with a selfie stick, taking a photo of themselves embracing with the spires of Manhattan behind them. They were exactly right to seem so happy.
And, past the bar, at the best of the three restaurants you saw Checketts with Fenton. Checketts had been up in Boston on 9/11, preparing to take a plane to Chicago that just as easily could have been one of the planes that al Qaeda chose with no thought of their intended destinations to hijack and fly into the Twin Towers. Checketts was now using an extended finger to record Fenton's particulars on an iPad.
“So we have you as the official first visitor,” Checketts said.
Fenton summed up his visit with a single word.
On the elevator ride down, the screens imparted the virtual experience of breaking free of the building and soaring streetward.
If you felt you had just left a church-temple-mosque, you might have found this too close to tumbling from the upper floors.
But, another of the visitors, not Fenton, but also with a British accent, was only thrilled.
“Fantastic!” he exclaimed.
The way to the subway took you past the memorial pools and all those names of people who could not possibly have suddenly just ceased to exist, gone.
“See forever…” the news ribbon back at the entrance was still saying.