Temporary WTC memorial lights fading soon

NEW YORK – For Kathy Rohner and Barbara Pandolfo, the twin towers of light that soar above the lower Manhattan skyline each night are far more than luminous reminders of the Sept. 11 tragedy that killed their children and nearly 3,000 other people.

“It’s like two beams reaching up to heaven,” said Rohner, a River Edge, N.J., mother of six who lost her youngest son, Scott, in the attack on the World Trade Center.

“You keep running around searching for answers, and then there’s this light, and you think, maybe people won’t forget her after all,” said Pandolfo, an Oradell resident who lost her daughter, Dominique.

Such reactions are much deeper and more heartfelt than Tribute in Light organizers imagined March 11 when they installed two sets of 44 high-powered searchlights – at 7,000 watts each – just west of Ground Zero in Battery Park City. Since then, two pillars of light reach to the clouds every evening from 6 to 11 for a breathtaking spectacle that, on a clear night, can be seen 30 miles away.

“In some way, these beautiful lights help us take back a little bit of what never should have been taken from us,” said Union City, N.J.’s Yolanda Knepper, who lost her sister, Nancy Perez. “New York City should not turn them off.”

But after Saturday, the two most brilliant columns of light in the world -at 42 billion candle power each – will fall dark.

Even Ann Pasternak, a tribute organizer who sometimes weeps at the sight of the memorial she helped create, cannot change that.

“It would be wonderful if the lights could remain,” said Pasternak, executive director of Creative Time, a public arts group, “but we as an organization made a promise to keep them temporary, and a promise is a promise.”

With pained reluctance, tribute organizers and lighting professionals list a variety of practical reasons why the lights, financed with an estimated $500,000 in mostly in-kind contributions, cannot continue:

– The costs required probably could not be sustained indefinitely.

– Much of the equipment is on loan, must be returned, and is far too sophisticated for use in a permanent light show.

– Even the agreement to use the property is temporary.

The New York City Audubon Society, too, is worried that continuation would disrupt the annual bird migration, which begins soon.

And finally, not everyone who lost loved ones Sept. 11 believes contributions should be focused on a lighting spectacle.

“The money should be spent on college educations for children,” said Jill Swift of Jersey City (N.J.), whose husband, Thomas, was killed in the attack.

The lights were never intended to be permanent, said architect Richard Nash Gould, one of five architects and artists credited with initiating the tribute.

“Much of their beauty is their impermanence,” he said. “If you leave them on a long time, you risk making them part of the wallpaper.”

But he has a solution: “Bring them back periodically, for a month at a time each year.”

“If it was planned properly,” added Paul Marantz, the lighting artist who designed the spectacle, “I’m sure we could do it at minimal cost.”

Nash Gould’s idea has special appeal for those, like Pasternak, who want a lasting memorial.

“It could take 20, even 50, years to decide on a permanent memorial,” she said. “In the meantime, it would be nice to have something.”

On his weekly radio program March 29, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said his administration “should consider lights as part of the permanent memorial,” although Jennifer Falk, the mayor’s deputy press secretary, insisted last week that finances remained a key consideration. Since the radio show, Bloomberg has deferred to the judgment of the Municipal Art Society, the lead agency in organizing the tribute. Kent Barwell, the society’s executive director, said any decisions would require consensus throughout the New York region.

Under the banner of Imagine New York, the society has organized more than 100 groups in the region to conduct workshops this week on rebuilding lower Manhattan.

“We believe deeply in consultation,” Barwell said. “The question of the lights should be part of the discussion about how we continue from here.”