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Monday, March 10, 2008

9/11 staircase moved as survivors watch

A construction worker places an American flag on the concrete survivors staircase at the World Trade Center site on Sunday, March 9, 2008 in New York. The 37-step staircase survived Sept. 11 and remains the only above ground remnant of the trade center complex. It will be moved temporarily within the site and eventually will become part of the Sept 11 memorial.
(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

NEW YORK - As a survivor, Tom Canavan felt he had to witness the removal of the last sizable remnant of the World Trade Center: the staircase that served as an escape route for him and many others.

Canavan joined a smattering of survivors and a group of city officials Sunday at ground zero to watch workers plant an American flag on the staircase. Then they waited until a crane hoisted the 65-ton structure and carefully placed it on a flatbed.

The staircase was moved 200 feet to a temporary location near the northwest corner of the site. It will become part of the World Trade Center memorial and museum, which is scheduled to open on the 10th anniversary of the 2001 attacks.

"In many senses, we're all survivors of 9/11 — this city, this country," said Joe Daniels, president of the foundation that is building the memorial. "And the staircase is a really potent symbol of that."

The 37 steps that once connected the plaza outside the twin towers to the street below are the only aboveground remnant of the trade center complex.

For Canavan, seeing the staircase again summoned memories of fleeing down the steps after tunneling out of debris when the World Trade Center's south tower collapsed.

"Time seemed to move very fast," he said. "It took me about 20 minutes to tunnel out, just digging. I had no fingernails left when I got to the top."

Preservationists and survivors argued for years that the staircase remain undisturbed to honor the memory of Sept. 11.

But state officials announced in 2006 that they would demolish all but one or two slabs of the staircase to make way for a new office tower, undeterred by a preservation group that named the steps one of the nation's most endangered historic places.

The site's owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, had said that the 22-foot staircase could not be taken off the trade center site because it was too tall for traffic lights and overhead poles and possibly too heavy for bridges.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer's administration worked out a compromise last year to separate the stairs from their concrete base and install them at the Sept. 11 memorial.

Avi Schick, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., said moving the stairs was a good compromise.

"We were presented with what was really a false choice, which is to say either you get rid of that remnant and you allow rebuilding to go forward or you keep the remnant and the memory and you stop rebuilding," Schick said. "And we said that's a false construct... You can honor memory, you can honor the day, you can honor survival, yet respect and understand the need for rebuilding to go forward."