Visiting the Void

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Kate Yanina DeConinck

In 2010 alone, more than one million people from around the world visited Ground Zero, the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.1 Included among those who went to stare at the ongoing construction and converse with fellow “pilgrims” were many of the men and women who came to New York between September 2001 and June 2002 to help with recovery and cleanup efforts. Why has Ground Zero become a site of ritual return for these workers?

While their personal reasons for visiting the site are as diverse as the individuals themselves, I want to suggest that many workers periodically return to Ground Zero as a way of preserving the communitas they once experienced there. In the aftermath of the attacks, these citizens employed ritualistic strategies that made the world feel more manageable during a time of crisis and transition, and to reestablish intersubjective bonds. Today, even after having left their cleanup roles, workers continue to project emotions onto Ground Zero, and they return to the site on occasion to reconnect with the values and memories they associate with it. This particular group of people associates Ground Zero not only with destruction and death, but also with the potential for humans to live in harmony.

While watching the Twin Towers burn and collapse on television, many citizens experienced the attacks from a position of helplessness and vulnerability, initially feeling that there was nothing they could do but sit and watch the devastation unfold. As Carl (not his real name), a middle-aged man living in New Jersey, told me during an interview: “The moment that the attacks happened, I wanted to get [to New York to help].” Carl’s decision to respond actively was motivated by his desire to help the people of New York in some small, anonymous way. “I didn’t want to be patted on the back [for going to help],” said Carl. And, while his initial thought upon seeing the disaster was “this will never get cleaned up,” he was able to overcome this sense of paralysis by saying to himself, “You know what, if I can move a piece of steel or a piece of rubble or a piece of wood or something, [I can] help other people.”

Thus, Carl was able to scale down a massive, overwhelming tragedy into a series of smaller, manageable tasks that allowed him to work on the site in a productive way. As in religious rituals, in which larger cosmological crises can be addressed synecdochically, Carl focused on the individual bits of wood or debris that he could control as a way of acting upon a massive disaster that left more than sixteen acres of downtown Manhattan covered in ash, rubble, and human remains.2 Like many other men and women who traveled to New York City in the days after the attacks to offer their services during recovery efforts, Carl was driven there both by an existential need to help himself (changing his experience of the tragedy from passive fear to active engagement) and by a practical desire to assist others (helping New Yorkers put their city back together).

Whether they realized it or not, though, the volunteers who entered the city to help with recovery efforts were stepping into a foreign world, a place outside of ordinary time that was governed by ambiguity and improvisation. In many ways, recovery workers at Ground Zero existed in the sort of liminal space that Victor Turner has described in his studies of rites of transition. Turner argues that rites are characterized by three distinct phases: the detachment of participants from a normative social structure; an ambiguous phase in which they are betwixt and between states; and a final reincorporation of the participants, in which their passage is consummated. Much of Turner’s work focuses on the liminal period, wherein participants leave the “secular politico-jural systems [in which] exist intricate and situationally shifting networks of rights and duties proportioned to their rank, status, and corporate affiliation.” While everyday life is full of networks of “superordination and subordination,” liminality is characterized by a lack of social distinctions and gradations. Thus, “complete equality usually characterizes the relationship of neophyte to neophyte” as they foster a sense of comradeship which Turner describes as “communitas.”3

In considering the ways that recovery workers have described their time working at Ground Zero, I have noticed that, like initiates, they experienced a strong sense of interpersonal bonding and equality during this period of instability. William Langewiesche, an American author and journalist who was granted full access to Ground Zero during the cleanup as a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, observed:

The urgency of the [recovery and cleanup efforts] swept away ordinary responsibilities and the everyday dullness of family life, and it made nonsense of office paperwork and tedious professional routines. Traditional hierarchies broke down too. The problems that had to be solved were largely unprecedented. Action and invention were required on every level, often with no need or possibility of asking permission. As a result, within the vital new culture that grew up at the Trade Center site even the lowliest laborers and firemen were given power.4

During these nine months, Ground Zero was governed largely by improvisation, and the traditional hierarchies of power and social status in “ordinary life” became irrelevant. Speaking to me in April 2010, Carl emphasized similar points about the relationships among workers during the recovery period:

You were almost like in your own community, almost like in your own home; you were almost in utopia. It [didn’t] matter what you look like, what you believe in, what you don’t believe in; it [didn’t] matter your feelings about religion, about war, about anything. … Without speaking a word, you see someone and you say “I love that person.”

Working side by side as they sifted through rubble, hosed down debris, and collected remains, workers came to consider each other generous and loving human beings, and they shared food, water, and hugs on a daily basis.5 While they probably would not use a theoretical term like communitas to describe this phenomenon, there are striking similarities between their time at the site and the experiences of neophytes during rites of initiation.

But, as Turner and other theorists have pointed out, liminal states cannot last forever and, eventually, citizens must return to states of social structure and hierarchy—a reality for which many workers were not prepared. During the nine months of cleanup at the site, “[some workers] reminded themselves that they had recently led ordinary lives, and that they would return to them. But weeks felt like months, and months felt like years, and as winter came, it was ordinary life, and not the site, that began to seem dreamlike and far away.”6 Having grown accustomed to life at the site, some workers came to feel that they had experienced an inner transformation that outsiders could not recognize or understand. After having to send many workers home during the spring of 2002, Brian Lyons, a site supervisor at Ground Zero, noted:

Now that cleanup’s over, a lot of guys have gone off the deep end. … When you were working down there, you had responsibility and pride. You could do something about the tragedy. But when the job was over, and we laid the guys off, some took it very hard and couldn’t stop coming back to the site. Some had to be escorted off the property. They kept showing up like they were lost. Some of them wanted to work for nothing. You had to snap them into reality and say: “The job’s over. Go home.”7

The irony in Lyons’s statement is the fact that Ground Zero had become home for these lost men and women. During cleanup and recovery, Ground Zero certainly remained a symbol of destruction and death to them; however, it also came to represent the birthplace of the new identities many workers forged, identities not recognized by anyone off the site. For example, Mike Burton went from being an unknown deputy commissioner in the city’s Department of Design and Construction to the “go-to guy” in charge of cleanup—a job that kept him on site nearly all of the time. When Mike faced the prospect of reentering a world where no one knew him or appreciated what he had done to clear the site, “one of his friends [warned] him of the difficulty he now faced: as the publicly anointed Trade Center Czar, he would find it hard when someone said to his face, ‘Mike who?’—and that day would come soon.”8 Leaving this liminal phase that had come to feel comfortable and returning to the wider society, recovery workers quickly became aware that, like veterans coming back from war, outsiders did not understand the transformations they had undergone or what the experience meant to them.9 Even today, Carl believes that recovery workers share a “bond that other people can’t understand.”

Back in “ordinary time,” workers engaged in various strategies and rituals to overcome the sense of loneliness and depression they felt in leaving Ground Zero. Larry Keating, Danny Doyle, Mike Emerson, and Bobby Graves, ironworkers who were at Ground Zero “from the first day to the last day,” cutting steel and picking through debris looking for human remains, arranged to work together after cleanup, first doing welding at the Williamsburg Bridge and then building New York University’s new law school. While they could not stay in the liminal phase forever, these four were able to maintain emotional and geographical ties with others who had been alongside them in the period of instability.

Not all have been able to interact with former co-workers on a daily basis, however. Many others have returned to Ground Zero periodically to reconnect with old friends with whom they share this special bond. From nearby New Jersey, Carl returns to the Tribute World Trade Center (WTC) Visitor Center once or twice every month to lead tours as part of the museum’s walking tour program. Doing so allows him to reconnect with other recovery workers who also volunteer as guides. When asked if the guides feel the same sense of unity when they give tours today as they once felt while working at the site, Carl replied: “I do. When I’m with a person giving a tour, I always feel like I’m back there in that time. And, when I’m with that person, that person understands what I feel.”

What is perhaps most remarkable is that even today, back in “normal,” hierarchical communities, those who previously shared a sense of communitas perceive each other as equals, despite the fact that they now inhabit very different spheres of life. In sharing their stories about cleanup with the outside world, former recovery workers are able to remember the potential for unity and love in society and to look with hope toward the future. As stated on the Tribute WTC Visitor Center website, the stories of the tour guides continually remind Americans of “the tremendous spirit of support and generosity that arose after the attacks.” While the walking tours themselves cannot necessarily recreate the communitas that once existed at Ground Zero, they can strengthen everyday communal bonds among visitors and guides alike.

Many workers at Ground Zero continue to be attracted to the site today because it provides them with a sense of hope and possibility. The world seemed unmanageable and dangerous to Americans after having been attacked on their own soil in broad daylight, but the workers who went to clean up Ground Zero experienced greater agency and interpersonal unity as they made order, both literally and existentially, out of the chaos at the site. Furthermore, now that the ritualized clearing of the site has ended, many workers have created a ritual of return. When their everyday lives seem overwhelming, lonely, or meaningless, this ritual allows them to reconnect with the place where they once felt active, productive, and united.

Unfortunately, though, not all of the workers have found ways to reintegrate into the larger society after recovery and cleanup were over. Around the one-year anniversary of the attacks, John Graham, a skilled carpenter who helped with the cleanup and who suffered a chronic cough and nightmares after leaving, learned that one of his co-workers from Ground Zero had committed suicide after being sent home. Graham remarked: “This was a big, strong guy. You start thinking, ‘If he’s capable of that, when am I going to start seeing the boogeyman?’ ”10 Thinking about workers who could not reintegrate into society raises a number of questions about ritualization, particularly in the wake of a national tragedy. Historian Michael Puett has correctly stated that “when [ritual] works, it can, for periods of time, create pockets of order in which humans can flourish.”11 However, we can also see that the aftermath of liminality—the period when communitas and unity seem but a distant memory—can be devastating. While it is difficult to determine why some people left Ground Zero with a greater sense of optimism and others became depressed or even suicidal, it can be said that entering a liminal space always entails a risk. There is always the possibility for positive reorientation, but there is also the chance that the world will only seem all the more chaotic and dark.12


  1. There are no official figures on how many people have visited Ground Zero or nearby related museums, but according to its website, the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site welcomed its one-millionth visitor in August 2010.
  2. See Claude Lévi-Strauss on ritualistic healing through the use of symbols; Structural Anthropology, vol. 1 (Basic Books, 1963), 201.
  3. Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols (Cornell University Press, 1967), 99, 100.
  4. William Langewiesche, American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (North Point Press, 2002), 10–11.
  5. In calling attention to the sense of communitas shared by these workers, I am merely pointing to the positive human interactions that helped them get through each day. I do not mean to imply that their experiences at Ground Zero were entirely enjoyable or positive. As Carl said, they “saw things that you are not supposed to see as a human being.”
  6. Langewiesche, American Ground, 13.
  7. Corey Kilgannon, “Ironworkers’ Job of Clearing Ground Zero Is Over, but the Trauma Lingers,” The New York Times, November 11, 2002.
  8. Langewiesche, American Ground, 201.
  9. While many recovery workers felt a special bond with Ground Zero, not all did. An ironworker named Bobby Graves saw the site as just another workplace: “The way I see it is: it was a job. Now the job’s done, and I’m on to another job”; Kilgannon, “Ironworkers’ Job of Clearing Ground Zero.”
  10. Ibid.
  11. Michael Puett, “Innovation as Ritualization: The Fractured Cosmology of Early China,” Cardozo Law Review 28, no. 1 (2006): 36.
  12. An earlier draft of this paper was workshopped in Michael D. Jackson’s fall 2010 course, “Ritualization, Play, and Transitional Phenomena.” I want to thank Professor Jackson and the students for their invaluable feedback on this piece, and their encouragement of my research in general.

Kate Yanina Deconinck is a doctoral candidate in religion and society at Harvard Divinity School and has been conducting ethnographic field research in New York City since early 2010.

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