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The Survivor Tree

My search for resilience in the face of adversity took many years. I wanted something concrete to inspire me, something specific to symbolize hope, until I found it -- in a tree.

It all began on September 11, 2001, that day of infamy.

The memory is fresh as if it happened only yesterday.

On this day, September 11, 2001, at 8:46 am, terrorists hijacked American Airlines flight 11 and deliberately crashed it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

15 minutes later another plane, United Airlines flight 175, intentionally smashed into the South Tower.

The intense heat generated by the thousands of gallons of plane fuel triggered the 110 storey structure to collapse to the ground. The increasing weight of the upper floors, weakened by the burning fuel, caused the whole upper building to crash to the lower floors.

At 9:37 am, a third plane, American Airlines flight 77, again hijacked by terrorists, deliberately crashed at the Pentagon.

Shortly after, as if on cue, at 10:03 am, another hijacked plane, United Airlines flight 93, crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania.

All these images are fresh in my memory.

In the days following the attacks, rescue workers searched for survivors.

A total of 2,977 people lost their lives. 2,753 perished at the World Trade Center Twin Towers and its surrounding area, while 184 died at the Pentagon, and 40 in Pennsylvania. Included in these deaths were 265 who died in the 4 planes.

I write this today in loving memory of the thousands, especially the 20 Filipinos, who perished in these terrorist attacks. I also write this as my tribute to the rescue workers who gave their lives so that others may live.

About one month after the tragedy, to the surprise of the laborers clearing the area at Ground Zero, a severely damaged callery pear tree with snapped roots and burned branches appeared under the rubble. The charred tree was only one twig “alive.” Recovery workers carefully removed the pear tree and handed it to the NYC Parks and Recreation Department who in turn tried to bring it back to life. The tree survived.

In 2010 the tree was returned to the site. It was nursed back from an 8-foot tree to a healthy 30 feet. Then it was replanted along rows of oak trees in the plaza. It is the only pear tree there that’s not an oak.

The callery pear tree was later christened The Survivor Tree and celebrated with a poem titled “The Survivor Tree,” read for the first time for the occasion by movie star Whoopie Goldberg.

During the replanting ceremony, officials of the Port Authority, Department of Parks and Recreation, and many 9/11 survivors took part in the replanting. Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg announced that the tree symbolizes the nation’s resilience after the attacks. He promised the audience that “like the thousands of courageous stories that arose from the ashes of the World Trade Center, the story of this tree also will live on and inspire many.”

Every year, as a gesture of sympathy, the 9/11 Memorial presents seedlings from this tree to three communities that have endured tragedy, especially from terrorist attacks. They are intended to serve as symbols of resiliency and hope.

In 2021 seedlings were given to:

The WHO for its response to the Covid-19 pandemic;

Oslo and Utoya, Norway, in memory of the total of 77 people killed by a gunman in July of 2011;

The Santa Fe High School in Texas, when on May 18, 2018 a HS student shot and killed 8 students, 2 teachers, and wounding 13.

I visit this tree every year to draw inspiration in the face of adversities I see in the world. It stands out prominently among the other trees nearby.

Each time I’m here, my heart sings that song we all learned by heart in childhood, and I still believe, though I’m no longer one and twenty, that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree, Kilmer old chap, this pear tree that only God can make, His gift to fools like me, assuring us there is resilience, because there is love, and where love is, there is hope.


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