Each lamp snapped into life, one by one, as two technicians slalomed among them, reaching for the base of each machine. They set them alight manually, and with the crunching-lever sound of a stage-light switch the tranquil power of 7,000 watts went flowing upwards into the sky. In the distance, the sun was setting in pink and tangerine against a cloud bank set to roll in later on in the night of September 8th. But for now it was clear above Manhattan, save for a few wisps, and a cool late-summer breeze washed out of New York Harbor and onto the top level of the parking garage where the events crew and a few observers had all gathered for the test. Two little boys gathered, too, at their floor-to-ceiling living-room window in an adjacent glass hi-rise. In a window near them, an office sat empty, a desk covered in piles of papers, a snapshot of work unfinished.
The lamps were set up in a square, 50 feet by 50 feet, and soon enough the beams of light they generated were rising up together ascending in concert to form the North Tower. There were bits of dust carried through the light shafts on streams of air, the particles glowing as they passed through and disappeared into the dusk. As the lights reached 11 or 12 stories up, measured against the hi-rise, the many beams began to blend together into one of the two structures of light visible for miles in every direction, the ones you might recognize from the photos. All the way at the top of things, in the atmosphere or at the limit of the eye’s perception, all the little beams seemed to come together at a single point, and so did the two larger ones they formed, the Twin Towers. It was the railroad-track illusion, set in the sky. As my eyes moved up to that place, just as all the lights had come on and the stage was set, a passenger jet went gliding overhead, close enough that it seemed headed for the structure of the light itself. A shiver went down my spine. The breeze, maybe.
The two beams of light that rise from the Battery in Lower Manhattan each September aren’t two beams, really. They are 88 beams arranged into two squares, 44 each, diagonal from one another at two corners of a parking garage near the mouth of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. This is an annual performance, played for an audience of millions for miles around, as it continually rockets up and slips into the atmosphere. “Nothing has ever been so tall on the face of the Earth,” says Paul Myoda, one of the artists who designed the installation. In that sense, the Tribute in Light is a kind of megasculpture. But first and foremost, it is a production.
Because they don’t just flip on the lights. The first exhibition came in March 2002, before it became an annual event on the anniversary. For the first couple of years, when the installation was placed in a parking lot north of Ground Zero, they rented the lamps. But then they bought some—88 and a few extra—and now they’re stored at the garage between Septembers, waiting for their call time. Each year they are pulled out and placed in position and then, crucially, they are adjusted. Tinkered with. Sometimes they come out of storage jostled or off-kilter. The reflectors within the lamps are raised and lowered in order to get the right diameter on the individual beams. The corner lights are placed first, to get the bearings. And then they place the walls.
The people who work atop the garage call the lights between the corners “the east wall,” or “the west wall,” or the “north wall” of each tower. For the crew members and technicians, most of whom work for Michael Ahern Production Services, the events company that has run this installation for all of these past two decades, these simply are the Twin Towers. They are the buildings themselves, even if they are located a few blocks south of the Reflecting Pools, the footprints where the World Trade Center buildings once stood. For the families of victims who come to the top of this garage each year, and for the cops and the firemen who arrive in full dress uniform to look on and upward, these are the Towers, too.
The lamps feature 7,000-watt Xenon bulbs, among the most powerful ever made, custom-supplied by the fantastically named Italian company Spacecannon. They are plugged into the massive equivalents of living-room power strips, known as “lunchboxes,” and those in turn are connected to generators via rivers of thick black cables, placed with care so that they line up against each other without piling or tangling. The setup begins each year in the week leading up to September 11 itself. The lights are tested night after night. The angles at which they’re pointed towards the sky must be tinkered with down to the finest detail, manually, to make sure they are straight and convey the same visual, of two unified beams pointing straight upward, no matter the vantage point. To that end, folks on top of the garage are communicating on Nextels with spotters stationed in uptown Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey, who provide feedback on tweaks and adjustments.
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The leader on the technical side is Massimo Moratti, a technician for Spacecannon, whom everyone on top of the garage spoke of with an admiration bordering on reverence. (The crew did not want to be quoted on the record for this story.) He can take apart and rebuild these intricate machines by muscle memory, one of the few people on Earth with this kind of skill set. There was talk that he began training someone—an apprentice, you might say—last year, but only he can do the job for now. And besides, after 20 years, building the Tribute each September is about more than knowledge or skill, or even experience. Another longtime member of the staff suggested that, even if they could find someone else with his skills, they could not bear to do this without Massimo.
There was something beyond the familiarity of coworkers atop the garage. Maybe it is the sacred task at hand. Maybe it is how long they’ve been doing it together. But it was surely also down to the influence of Michael Ahearn, of the eponymous production company that still puts this on. The way that everyone spoke of their former leader, who died in 2015, more than bordered on reverence. There was a genuine love for him here, a sense that they are doing all this with such craft and precision and dedication because it was what he did and what he called on them to do. He fought for the project from the beginning, waged the bureaucratic and political battles inherent to any undertaking in New York City year after year, helped bring the project back from the brink of extinction in 2009. He’d served as production manager on tours for the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and David Bowie and Prince, for Live Aid 1985 when Freddie Mercury brought the house down. But his wife, Mady, says he was never prouder of anything than he was of this, and that he kept this thing alive because everyone he met, even the city bureaucrats and the sharp-elbowed politicos of each new mayoral administration, could not deny that he was genuine—that he cared, that his enthusiasm was real, that he was listening, and that he actually wanted their perspectives on this problem or that.
On the night we were gathered, the breeze was strong enough that it prevented the bugs from gathering as they might normally in the late summer weather. It is something of an understatement to say that moths are attracted to the lights—this is more like their Super Bowl—and even when we were there, towards the end, we witnessed a member of the crew using a horsehair brush—more resistant to the heat—to brush some fallen insects off one of the lamps. “I really didn’t know they were moths” at first, Myoda said, “and it really did seem like some kind of pixie dust or something. There was something kind of glittering about it. We asked, ‘What is that?’ and then realized that they are the moths. It just kind of comes back down to the world again.” The more pressing issue when the Tribute was first proposed, though, at least for the Audubon Society, was that the lights would attract songbirds that migrate nocturnally. They could stick around—well, fly around—the lights, swirling chaotically, drawn to it particularly on nights where there was no moon to guide them through ancient instinct. It could be enough to strip them of the energy they needed to make the full journey south.
“And so Michael says, ‘Okay, how can we do this? How can we work together?’” Mady remembers of her late husband’s outreach to the Audubon Society. “There’s no point in there being any loss of life, particularly at this event.” And so now, each year, there are spotters from the Society on the rooftop for the 11th, when the lights shine from dusk to dawn. They’ve got cameras and microphones and all the rest, and when they think things are getting too hot for the birds above, they make it known and the members of Michael Ahern’s production team turn the lights off for 10 minutes or 20, just as they did when he was still running the show. They do it all as he led them to do. And even in these six years since his death, even after a pandemic that threatened to close down the project through logistical headaches and financial strain, all the city departments and the advocacy organizations and even the FAA continue to cooperate. It’s because of what the show has come to mean to so many people, but it’s also about the guy who dragged it into existence. “There’s a lot of people,” Mady said, “that at the end of the day, they will do anything for Michael.”
Paul Myoda helped design the project along with Julian LaVerdiere, prompted by the sullen cloud of smoke and ash they saw illuminated by film lighting rigs on the night of September 11, 2001, as rescuers tried desperately to pull people from the rubble. (Richard Nash Gould, Gustavo Bonevardi, and John Bennett also came upon similar ideas independently. Lightning designer Paul Marantz was also crucial to the execution, along with Ahern.) Myoda reminded me, before I went down to the site, that the piece was designed for viewers far away—by some estimates, the lights are visible for 60 miles. But it’s also an experience all its own to be close to the lights. “There’s a strange phenomenon happening, related to its height,” he said. “That is, anywhere you go within a few-mile radius, it’s as if it follows you, because it seems to arc over your head. If you stand and you face it and look up, it’s there, but then if you turn around and look up, you can still see it. It is not only so public, where millions of people can see it, but also it feels really personal, because it follows you around.”
More than that, though, he sees the lights as a Rorschach Test. Everyone takes something different, or at least something their own. Mady Ahern agreed. “People can take from it what they need,” she said, “Interpret it however they want to interpret it. There’s no agenda. There’s no political agenda around it.” That was not always guaranteed, Myoda said. “At a certain point, and this never really got into the press, the Bush administration was seriously considering trying to do the Tribute in Afghanistan. We really did not want that to happen, because it was not about Afghanistan. There were maybe a hundred different countries who lost innocent people in the buildings. It really was not, for us, about some nationalistic image.”
For his part, Myoda sees something celestial. “They are not only a landmark, but sort of a time-mark,” he said of the lights. “They go out as this energy, this light into space. I had this kind of fanciful thought that, if there is intelligence out in space, that they will see this kind of strange Morse code going out there, because the light is going out every year. We’re sending out this little signal.”
Wondering just how far out the lights go—do they break the atmosphere and reach into space?—I called up Jacob Barandes, a physics lecturer at Harvard University who dwells in the area where physics meets philosophy. He couldn’t say exactly how far up the beams would go—the light would likely be scattered by the atmosphere, though some could still escape and it was difficult to say for sure how much. But more than that, like the rest of us, he had some thoughts on the lights.
“Fundamentally, light consists of particles called photons,” he said. “They’re the basic elementary particles of light. And one of the key things about photons is they’re massless. Light does feel gravity, but Earth’s gravity is far, far too feeble to trap light. There’s something deeply poetic about countless massless particles streaming up into the sky, barely noticing gravity. It does evoke people’s souls rising up from the ground, no longer constrained, and going up into the sky, but also illuminating the sky as they do it, illuminating the whole area.
“Light is both a wave and a quantum mechanical particle. They come in discrete amounts, but they don’t quite have locations in a way that is easy to understand, to visualize. And so there’s this basic ontological ambiguity at the heart of light. Light is so fundamentally ambivalent about its own nature.”
From a distance, the lights communicate a notion of the infinite, the sense there is no end and perhaps no beginning. It dovetails with the Reflecting Pools at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which took the reins of the Tribute project in 2012, and where the water flows downward into what what the eye tells you is an abyss. We have an innate desire to separate ourselves from the ephemeral nature of our own existence, the finality of its end, to believe that stars that burn as brightly as ours will never truly be extinguished. That was what I saw in the lights, and then we were allowed inside the South Tower.
We each approached the Tower’s west wall and turned sideways, backs to the closest lamp, leaning gingerly through the gap while averting our eyes and shielding our skin from the ultra powerful machines. Once inside, it felt truly like…we were inside. Myoda refers to the feeling inside the light structure as being within a “vault.” I could not avoid the sensation that it was a church, a cathedral of light, the beams on all sides cascading upwards until they met at that glorious point directly above. There was a sense that they kept going, together, even after they met up there, but also that they’d come together to close us in, to provide a pitched roof of metaphysical dimensions. Maybe this was the quantum nature of things at work again, what Barandes called the ambivalence of light itself, but the feeling was inescapable that we were inside a tower, with a ceiling, that nonetheless stretched up forever.
After an hour or so, it was time to go, and we filed past the perimeter barricade to an area of the roof that still served as a parking garage. We lingered for a few minutes, watching as clouds, blackened in the night sky, drifted into illumination where the two Towers began to join together in the eye’s interpretation. And then, soon enough, the lights began to snap off, one by one. The team had finished a lot of their testing the previous night. The lamps were firing, the beam diameters were correct, the angles had been adjusted to the approval of the spotters in Jersey and Brooklyn. Whatever was left for Wednesday night had been accomplished, and the crew was presumably eager to power things down early ahead of the main event on Saturday. For that, when the lights will shine from dusk until dawn—with a few breaks requested by folks from the Audubon Society—a crew of as many as 10 people will tend to the installation constantly throughout the night.
It was also a handy way to shut things down before the rain arrived. The weather is the main variable every year, though it has never truly disrupted the proceedings, and it will be a growing concern in coming years as more powerful storms bring shocking amounts of water to New York in the late summer. But there’s also, one crew member said, something else about the lights in the rain. Eventually, the water brings rainbows, rings of the color spectrum that wrap themselves around the light beams in what he could not resist calling “halos.”
On the day of September 11, they will fade the lights in with the sunset so that the Twin Towers will become a fixture of the New York skyline again without the onlookers from miles around even noticing, just as Michael Ahern, the consummate showman, would have it. When the sun rises on the 12th, they will shut the beams off just as the morning light fills the sky to gradually render their 7,000 watts redundant. But this night of September 8, they simply shut off, one by one, returning the Financial District to an aggregate of illumination from street lamps and living rooms and the neon signs on the facades of local businesses. It was only the rehearsal, after all.
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