One of the last pieces of steel hoisted up last year sits near a precarious edge. The message on it reads: "We remember. We rebuild. We come back stronger!" It is signed by a visitor to the site last year — President Barack Obama.
The words on beams, walls and stairwells of the skyscraper that replaces the twin towers lost on Sept. 11, 2001, form the graffiti of defiance and rebirth, what ironworker supervisor Kevin Murphy calls "things from the heart." They're remembrances of the 2,700 people who died, and testaments to the hope that rose from a shattered morning.
"This is not just any construction site, this is a special place for these guys," says Murphy of the 1,000 men and some women who work in the building at any given time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"Everyone here wants to be here, they want to put this building up," Murphy says. "They're part of the redemption."
On a frigid, windy winter day, with the 9/11 memorial fountain straight below and the Statue of Liberty in the distance, Murphy supervised a crew of men guiding the first piece of the steel spire that will top out the building at a dizzying 1,776 feet — the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.
In the rooftop iron scaffolding for the spire, 105 floors up, a beam pays homage to Lillian Frederick, a 46-year-old administrative assistant who died on the 105th floor of the south tower, pierced by a terrorist-hijacked airliner.
A popular Spanish phrase is penned next to two names on one concrete pillar: "Te Amo Tres Metros Sobre el Cielo," meaning, "I love you three steps above heaven."
Some beams are almost completely covered in a spaghetti-like jumble of doodled hearts and flowers, loopy cursives and blaring capitals. Many want to simply mark their presence: "Henry Wynn/Plumbers Local (hash)1/Sheepshead Bay/Never Forget!"
Families of victims invited to go up left names and comments too, as did firefighters and police officers who were first responders. "R.I.P. Fanny Espinoza, 9-11-01" reads a typical remembrance signed by several family members of a Cantor-Fitzgerald employee.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wrote: "With you in spirit — those who perished, those who fought, those who build."
Time and daily routines have softened the communal grief as the workers carry on, trading jokes and gruff male banter. Some ends up in whimsical graffiti marking World Cup soccer matches, New York Giants Super Bowl victories and other less-weighty matters that have gone on since construction began six years ago. One crudely drawn map of the neighborhood down below shows the location of a popular strip club.
People on the ground below will never see the spontaneous private thoughts high in the Manhattan sky. The graffiti will disappear as the raw basic structure is covered with drywall, ceiling panels and paint for tenants moving into the 3 million square feet of office space by 2014.
Knowing this, workers and visitors often take photographs of special bits of graffiti, so the words will live on.