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During the 10 months I spent working in 9/11 recovery efforts at Ground Zero and the eight years I spent working to build the 9/11 Memorial, I created many strong relationships. But one in particular has changed my mind, body and soul.
In 2005, I met a group of survivors and family members of the victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing who had come to New York City to offer comfort and support after 9/11. Their presence offered us a model to follow in our recovery, rebuilding and healing process.
Later that year in April, I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial. The memorial is so poetic, with its gates framing the time of the attack and empty chairs symbolizing the lives lost. Yet, it is more than that: a living memorial. An American elm tree that survived the bombing became the foundation of the design and now stands to represent the time before, during and after the attack.
It was here that I learned to see trees with a more discerning eye. To assign to them human qualities. To believe in their healing powers. And it inspired me to oversee the repatriation of the 9/11 Survivor Tree back to the 9/11 Memorial plaza.
One of the traditions of OKC's anniversary ceremony is to gift a sapling grown from the seeds of their survivor tree to a deserving group. NYC received one of these saplings, and on Sept. 10, 2006, the 9/11 Survivors Network invited OKC bombing survivors to attend an installation of the tree in the Living Grove Memorial Park at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Here, it grew amongst trees from the 9/11 attacks that had been relocated there. The act represented the union of our two sites on NYC soil.
This inspired my mission to plant the Survivor Tree on the Memorial plaza and give a cloned sapling to the OKC 4/19 Outreach Group. I was then invited to attend the planting of an OKC seedling and the NYC clone alongside each other on the Oklahoma Christian University Campus, symbolizing the union of our two cities on OKC soil.
As I mark the 20th year of remembrance, I mourn for the loss of the innocents as well as those that must go on living without them. I pray for those injured both physically and mentally. And I am inspired by the survivors, both human and arboreal.
By Ronaldo Vega, 9/11 Memorial Director of Design and Construction