‘Survivor Tree’ Defies the Odds as It Rises From the Ashes of 9/11

By RICHARD DODD | Sep 05, 2018
Courtesy of: 9/11 Memorial Organization The damaged and mostly defoliated ‘Survivor Tree’ awaits removal from the 9/11 site.

They call it “The Survivor Tree.” It is trying to heal the world.

The 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack is approaching, and with it comes an opportunity to pay tribute to the victims and their families. It is also a special time to recognize the first responders and volunteers who assisted in the rescue, recovery and relief efforts and to share the story of a remarkable tree.

In 2001, I lived and worked in Lower Manhattan on Hanover Square, three blocks from the World Trade Center. When the towers fell, I volunteered with the Salvation Army at Ground Zero. In 2015, I became a docent at the Memorial Site on behalf of the 9/11 Tribute Center. I tell this story on my tours.

In October 2001, a seemingly lifeless tree was discovered on the ash-covered ruins at Ground Zero. For over a month it was exposed to searing heat, toxic dust and virtually no nourishment. Could it be saved?

This Callery pear tree, native to China and known for its lush white springtime blossoms, had been planted in the late 1970s between World Trade Center Buildings 4 and 5. With an expected lifespan of approximately 20 years, it was in its twilight when the North Tower collapsed and partially destroyed it. The remaining half was burnt, scarred and forsaken.

Many people in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack resembled this tree, including me. A month before this tree was found, I volunteered with the Salvation Army Disaster Services Team. The experience left scars. The scene when we arrived at Ground Zero was apocalyptic with pulverized concrete, sickly gray dust and misshapen steel beams littering the once-manicured grounds. The only signs of life were in the form of valiant responders and rescue dogs. Yet one tree remained. It was the last living survivor of an attack that claimed almost 3,000 lives.

A cynic would say, “What’s the big deal? It’s only a tree that would have died anyway. Isn’t the more important story the human toll of lives lost, families broken and hope shattered?”

A cynic did not discover this severely damaged tree on Oct. 31, 2001. A single branch with buds rising above the rubble caught her attention. Akin to a baby reaching out from its mother’s womb to claim life, this branch reached skyward from a fallow womb of ashes.

Only a special person sensing the need to help a broken tree in a broken city would have stopped. Rebecca Clough, who worked for the New York City Department of Design and Construction, made a decision.

She contacted the New York City Parks Department, which dispatched a flatbed truck to the site. With the use of a grappler, the tree was lifted, root ball wrapped and bagged, and transported to Van Cortland Park in the Bronx.

The damaged tree measured 8 feet tall when it arrived at the New York City Parks Department’s Arthur Ross Nursery. Despite a heart-wrenching debate on whether the tree was beyond rehabilitation, it was given a chance to heal.

Ronaldo Vega, a colleague of Rebecca’s and subsequently the 9/11 Memorial director of design and construction, became the tree’s guardian. Over time it grew strong, new branches, rose to a height of more than 30 feet, and celebrated each spring with a canopy of beautiful white blossoms. It also grew a new name, “The Survivor Tree.”

It was replanted at the 9/11 Memorial site in December 2010 and captured the imagination of not just New York, but the world. Its story of resiliency, survival and hope symbolized the story of our nation.

The Survivor Tree is outliving its normal life projection by more than 10 years. It will eventually die, and the living story of this special tree will end. Or will it?

Spring cuttings have been cloned and, like an understudy in a Broadway play, one will replace the lead. The horticulturists at the New York City Parks Department and the Bartlett Tree Expert Co. in Stamford, Conn., have ensured that its legacy will endure. They have scientifically developed a blueprint for the Survivor Tree to live across the annals of time, analogous to the fountain of youth.

In some ways this story crosses biblical and Hollywood boundaries.

In the book of Genesis 2:9, the story of the Tree of Life having the knowledge of good and evil was recorded. In “Avatar,” one of the largest-grossing movies in history, the Tree of Souls was the source of life of the people of Na’vi. On the 9/11 Memorial grounds, the Survivor Tree nurtures all with its healing embrace.

Richard Dodd is writer, environmentalist, tour guide at the 9/11 Memorial Site and Realtor on Long Beach Island.


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