Lower Manhattan in March 2002, and the two once mighty towers lie in ruins. All around are remnants of terrible destruction and loss. A photographer moves through the debris, documenting the aftermath of devastation and carnage, no doubt appalled by what he sees. But, amid all the rubble, he is handed a surprising find. Something with an underlying hope even amid the overwhelming despair.
September 11, 2001 is one of those thankfully very rare days in history that are so infamous they can be identified simply by their date. As The New York Times put it, in the introduction to that newspaper’s Encyclopedia of 9/11, “Within weeks, the day had become a number, a kind of shorthand for a whole universe, one that hadn’t existed on 9/10.”
On that terrible day, 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists carried out aerial suicide attacks which claimed the lives of almost 3,000 people in the U.S. The militants hijacked four passenger airplanes and flew two of them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and another into the Pentagon, Washington DC. Mercifully, the last plane did not reach its intended target and crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
Nevertheless, all aboard that flight perished. The four 9/11 attacks would result in the deaths of 2,996 people, the vast majority of them at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Its iconic twin towers were hit separately by two planes, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175. The first had 92 crew and passengers aboard, including five hijackers, while Flight 175 carried 65 people, and another five hijackers.
At 8:45 a.m. September 11, 2001, the Al-Qaeda men deliberately crashed The American Airlines Boeing 767-223ER into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Some 18 minutes later, the United Airlines Boeing 767-200 hit the south tower. Those not killed by the impact of the jets died from smoke inhalation, the collapse of the north tower, or by jumping to their deaths in an attempt to escape.
Apart from the massive loss of civilian life, 470 personnel from the fire department, police service and military forces also died. To date, almost 22,000 human bone and tissue fragments have been recovered from the World Trade Center site. However, as of August 2017, only 1,641 victims have been identified from these fragments. DNA technology is currently being utilized in the attempts to identify more victims.
As well as human remains, various personal items were recovered from what became known as Ground Zero. They are poignant reminders of the thousands of lives lost that day. Among them are a rag doll, autographed baseballs, jewelry and photographs. Even mundane items, such as pens, credit cards and eyeglasses, became moving memorials to their departed owners.
Many of these recovered artifacts are now housed in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The institution, located at the Ground Zero site, is host to several exhibitions dedicated to the terrible events of 9/11. One exhibit, for example, displays many pieces of footwear. These ownerless shoes, with their telling damage and stains, are a powerful testimonial to the chaos and tragedy of that awful day.
And even though every object in the museum has its own tale to tell, some in particular stand out. One such item was brought to public attention by the photographer Joel Meyerowitz. Immediately after 9/11, the New York street photographer was the only still cameraman granted complete access to Ground Zero. In fact, Meyerowitz spent nine months on his harrowing assignment, resulting in his 2006 book, Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive.
On March 30, 2002, the then 64-year-old Meyerowitz was working inside the base of what was the south tower. He recalls that a firefighter suddenly came running towards him. The man had found an artifact in the rubble, which he gave to Meyerowitz. The photographer later called the item “an astonishing gift out of the blue.”
The “gift” was an open Bible which had become fused with a piece of inexplicably heart-shaped steel debris. Meyerowitz’s first public mention of the holy-book find was made on The History Channel’s internet series, Remembering 9/11. In the video, shot in 2013 or 2014 and subsequently uploaded to YouTube, the photographer points out a passage on the Bible’s open pages. Uncannily, the book was open at the Gospel of Matthew and concerned Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Meyerowitz is seen highlighting verse 38 on the pages of the damaged book, which is headed “Retaliation.” The photographer quotes the lines, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But he then tells the camera what the following lines contain. Meyerowitz explains, “Verse 39 says, ‘But whoever smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ And of all the pages in the Bible that it would be open to, that was remarkable.”
The photographer continues, “You know the guy that handed it to me was a fireman? If I was to guess what was in his mind at the moment, I would think that he saw a Bible – and a Bible has such symbolic significance to all of us, regardless of our beliefs… he just instinctively knew that this was something worth saving.”
Indeed, Meyerowitz donated it to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum where many others would also come to see the significance of the artifact. When Pope Francis visited the museum on September 25, 2015, for a inter-faith gathering, the pontiff was shown the Bible. The New York Times mentioned the fact in a report after the event, which brought the holy book more attention.
The story of the Ground Zero Bible subsequently went viral, although some people were skeptical about the artifact’s true origins. In response, the online fact-checking resource Snopes ran an article on the amazing find. The website noted that although the Bible was found in 2002, Meyerowitz waited more than a decade before publicizing it.
The Snopes article sounded a note of caution. “The tiniest fragments remaining from that day have long since been swept into time capsules and museums with the oft-repeated promise to never forget,” it said. “So that such a moving remnant would remain unpublicized in the years of mourning that followed is unusual but not impossible.”
The Snopes researchers also observed that Meyerowitz, who had been photographing Ground Zero for years prior to the Remembering 9/11 series, had failed to mention the Bible’s discovery earlier. According to the website, the photographer did not even bring up the artifact during an interview with the New Yorker magazine in 2011, commemorating a decade since the twin towers attack.
Snopes concluded that since the site had received no clarification from Meyerowitz, and that the firefighter who supposedly discovered the artifact has never been found, it labelled the claim “undetermined.” The article concluded, “In short, it’s neither impossible nor implausible that Meyerowitz did document a “heart-shaped Bible [page] fused to a steel beam” found in the WTC rubble after 9/11.”
The National September 11 Memorial and Museum, at least, accepted the steel-fused Bible as authentic. In the institution, the artifact is displayed close to the famous World Trade Center Cross. This is a large steel intersecting beam which was also found at Ground Zero. Both are placed at the end of the exhibits, so that visitors might leave feeling uplifted after witnessing evidence of such horror and sorrow.
In an email to The New York Times, quoted in the September 2015 report about the Pope’s visit, Meyerowitz wrote, “My astonishment at seeing the page that the Bible was open to made me realize the Bible’s message survives throughout time, and in every era we interpret its teachings freshly, as the occasion demands.”