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Returning a 'sphere' to trade center site: A brother's push against 'selfie' culture at 9/11 memorial

Looking back on it, Michael Burke figures the connection began decades ago. In the 1980s, when Michael was in his 20s, he and his twin brother Chris would get off the New York City subway and walk past the World Trade Center, on their way to jobs on Fulton Street.

Each day, Michael remembers, they would travel by the “Sphere for Fountain Plaza,” a 25-ton bronze sculpture at the heart of the complex. Designed by Fritz Koenig, it anchored the plaza joining the twin towers, which when built were the tallest buildings in the world.

“I felt like we were always there,” said Michael, a downstate native and a 1978 graduate of the state University at Fredonia. Often, at lunch, he and his twin would wander toward “The Sphere.” To Michael, it became a symbol of the place, a gathering spot for people from around the world: “Every kind of dress, every language, all of it,” he said.

In 2001, the trade center was attacked. Hijackers used two jetliners like missiles. Torn and burning, the towers collapsed upon themselves. Thousands died, including Michael’s brother, Billy, a firefighting captain. Fifteen years later, Michael feels the outdoor memorial built on the site does not conjure the full magnitude of loss, that too many visitors take lighthearted “selfies” or forget the full meaning of where they’re standing.

The memory helps explain why Michael fought so hard, for so many years, to finally hear these words in July from Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey:

“I recommend that we bring the Koenig ‘Sphere’ home,” Foye said, at a Port Authority board meeting covered by The New York Times.

“Home” is the site of the rebuilt trade center. The move will happen within the next few months, a  kind of postscript to last weekend’s 15-year commemoration of the terrorist attacks. The bronze sphere – battered, ripped but still standing – survived the devastation on Sept. 11, 2001. Among the lost on that morning: Michael’s brother, Capt. William Burke Jr. of the Fire Department of New York.

Billy Burke is a legend. He chose to remain in the north tower with two civilians, Abe Zelmanowitz and Ed Beyea, a paraplegic who could not descend in a wheelchair. Billy, like Zelmanowitz, stayed at Beyea's side.

"The Sphere at Fountain Plaza," sculpture by Fritz Koenig, before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo courtesy Port Authority of New York and New Jersey)

"The Sphere at Fountain Plaza," sculpture by Fritz Koenig, before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo courtesy Port Authority of New York and New Jersey)

It is believed they were together, when the towers fell.

To Michael and others in his family, the sphere is a symbol of endurance, of faith and resilience ….

Much like their brother.

For more than a decade, it has stood in Battery Park, in odd isolation from the site where it had been a centerpiece. Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority, said the authority board voted to move the sphere to the new Liberty Park, overlooking the outdoor plaza of the National Sept. 11 Memorial.

It is not, in full, what Michael Burke originally wanted. He turns to an expression he often uses: “You lose the good if you hold out for the perfect.” Last weekend, the memorial plaza was filled with thousands upon thousands of solemn visitors, many of them family members of those lost in the towers.

Yet Michael predicts that kind of quiet reflection will not last. Go into the underground museum at the memorial, he said, and you see twisted steel and other artifacts that bring you back to the sheer horror of what happened, 15 years ago.

The plaza itself, he argues, lacks that feeling. He said it needs some powerful relic, a gripping artifact, to command such solemnity. He’s argued for years that it should have been “The Sphere,” that it would have remedied what he sees as a symptom of that absence:

Irreverence - even if unintentional - by too many visitors.

Michael stopped last week at a SoHo Photo Gallery show put together by a photographer, Bob Leonard, who spent a year capturing images of visitors taking “selfies” at the memorial. The people in the photos often wear grins or goofy expressions. Some use "selfie sticks." They sometimes mug for the camera in front of the engraved names of those who died.

The remains of more than 1,000 people killed at the site have yet to be identified. There is an underground repository at the memorial that shelters unidentified remains. Michael Burke and Leonard, the photographer, contend the outdoor memorial – a green plaza dominated by two enormous waterfalls, or “voids,” built upon the footprint of the towers – does not summon that kind of gut-level reverence.

Leonard said he was inspired to take on the project by the memory of fire Capt. Patrick Brown, who trained at the same karate school before Brown's death on Sept. 11, 2001. The “selfie” behavior at the memorial was so prevalent – and so jarring – that Leonard spent a year working on the collection of photos.

“It doesn’t look like a tomb,” Leonard said. “It looks like an attraction.”

Read it here: Bob Leonard's essay on why he did a gallery on 'selfies' at the National Sept. 11 Memorial

In an email, Kate Monaghan, communications director for the memorial, said officials there "expect proper decorum in a place made sacred by the loss of nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children." The question touches off conflicting emotions. When Dr. Elizabeth Berry of Syracuse, the oldest Burke sibling, posted a story about Leonard’s photo exhibit on her Facebook page, it triggered a passionate debate about the plaza, about a “selfie” generation, about the highest meaning of a memorial:

There were people who thought it works, and people who thought it fails, and people who argued that “selfies” are intertwined, for better or worse, with 21st century culture.

What the outdoor memorial lacks, Berry contends, is a palpable sense “of reverence and spirituality.”

Michael Burke (wearing red shirt) with his siblings following a 2015 stair climb at One World Trade in honor of their brother, Capt. Billy Burke, who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. (Photo courtesy Burke family)

Michael Burke (wearing red shirt) with his siblings following a 2015 stair climb at One World Trade in honor of their brother, Capt. Billy Burke, who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Also in the image, from left: Jim Burke, Janet Burke Roy, Chris Burke and Dr. Elizabeth Berry. (Photo courtesy Burke family)

Leonard and Michael agree on a central point: Their grievance isn’t really with visitors who take “selfies.” That behavior happens, they say, because the area is missing the kind of visceral artifact that makes you feel the somber resonance of what happened there. They compare it to the feeling at Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor, where the sunken U.S.S. Arizona serves as both monument and tomb to the sailors, lost onboard.

Your thoughts: Are 'selfies' at the outdoor National Sept. 11 Memorial simply a byproduct of 21st century culture? Or, as Michael Burke and photographer Bob Leonard argue, are they based on the memorial's failure to generate proper reverence? You can leave a comment below, by using your Facebook sign-in.

All of it factored into Michael Burke’s long effort to bring the sphere back to the memorial. That sculpture somehow withstood the collapse of the towers. In early images, it endures amid the smoking rubble, not far from the broken shards of the tower that also became iconic after the attacks.

Bob Leonard spent a year capturing images of people taking photographs at the National Sept. 11 Memorial. While this image simply captures the general atmosphere, many of the photos show people mugging or laughing against a backdrop of the engraved names, of those who died. (Image courtesy Bob Leonard)

Troubled by what he saw as a sense of irreverence near the engraved names of the lost at the National Sept. 11 Memorial, Bob Leonard spent a year capturing images of people taking "selfies" and other images at the site. While this shot simply captures the general atmosphere, many of the photos show people mugging or laughing against a backdrop of the names of those who died. (Image courtesy Bob Leonard)

Yet “The Sphere” never became part of what The New York Times recently described as the “all but sanitized” landscape of the outdoor memorial. Instead, it went on display in the Battery. At one point in the late 2000s, Michael Burke said, there was talk of essentially warehousing the sculpture.

For Michael, that idea was unacceptable. He collected more than 7,000 signatures on a petition, and he continued to call for the return of the sphere to the trade center site. His argument was simple: If his brother’s selfless action was emblematic of the almost 3,000 who died on Sept. 11, then visitors should encounter something that immediately projects the raw horror and desperate courage intertwined with the attacks ….

Especially for young people born after 2001, who have no living memory – no point of reference - to the day itself.

Michael’s dream – to see the sphere on the plaza - never came to be. But he has visited Liberty Park, within the trade center site. The new park is elevated and looks down on the memorial. It will also hold the St. Nicholas National Shrine and the newly dedicated statue of an American horse soldier that represents soldiers sent into Afghanistan in the early days of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

“You stand there, and you look out and you see the trees, and you can see an American flag rising above them,” Michael said. “I’m pretty happy. It works. It’s appropriate.”

As for the sphere, changed and wounded but enduring ….

To Michael Burke, at a sacred place, that is the whole point.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. Leave a comment below, by using your Facebook sign-in, or email Kirst at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com. You can read more of Kirst's work in this archive.

 

 

 

 

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