Roughly 5 million visitors pass through Liberty State Park in an average year on their way to visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, a number that could rise with the completion of Empty Sky, a Sept. 11 memorial scheduled for an official opening Saturday.
Few of them will share the same degree of connection to the stainless steel and concrete monument as Rick Cahill, the father of a Sept. 11 victim and a member of the foundation that shepherded the structure through a nine-year process fraught with obstacles.
Scott Cahill, a 30-year-old bond trader with Cantor Fitzgerald, is listed along with 745 other New Jersey residents who died that day.
"It's beyond our expectations, just the beauty of it," Cahill said Wednesday at a preview of the memorial. "As a board member, I'm thrilled we were able to complete this. On a personal level, it's pretty emotional. It gives me a place to go and see his name and say, 'Hey, how you doing? This is what I did today,' things like that."
Designed by architects Jessica Jamroz and Frederic Schwarz, the memorial is composed of two 30-foot-high rectangular towers that stretch 208 feet, 10 inches long — the exact width of the World Trade Center towers, according to Jamroz. The towers are sunk into a berm and divided by a granite walkway that faces on a line to the World Trade Center site across the Hudson River in lower Manhattan.
The name of each New Jersey victim is etched in the stainless steel in 4-inch-high letters. The sharp reflections off the steel create a close feeling but also accentuate the broader environment.
"It changes every time I walk through it," Charles McKenna, director of New Jersey's Department of Homeland Security, said Wednesday. "It's somber today because it's not sunny, but other times when the sun is out, it's a bright, lively place."
Jamroz said she and Schwarz "spent days" sitting in the park in 2004 as they formulated their design to submit to judges. One unanticipated consequence of using stainless steel for the interior of the monument — the outer walls are unfinished concrete — was a halo-like reflection that appears when the sun shines down at the right angle. It happened for a fleeting moment on Wednesday, an otherwise dreary day
"We didn't expect it, but when you find something like that, it's truly miraculous," she said.
The memorial cost $12 million and was paid for by a $7 million grant from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, $4 million from the state and $1 million from the New Jersey Building Authority.
The project had to overcome protests and legal action from citizens' groups who said the monument obstructed views of lower Manhattan. They also said the state Environmental Protection Department didn't allow enough public input on the project.
In late 2009, a state appellate court rejected the attempt by a nonprofit group to block the construction of the memorial.
The design was revised 11 months ago to omit stainless steel on the exterior of the columns, a change that enabled the memorial to be ready in time for the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, McKenna said.