“This is history,” said 17-year-old Jonathan Aponte, placing his hand on the trunk of a sapling. “It’s living history right here at my school.”
Weeks after 9/11, a recovery worker at Ground Zero found one final flicker of life in the World Trade Center’s smoking ruins: a Callery pear tree that had grown on the plaza.
The bedraggled plant, missing most of its branches and clinging to a few faded leaves, was sent to a Parks Department nursery in the Bronx, where arborists coaxed it back to health. In 2010, the Survivor Tree, as it’s known, was planted at the National 9/11 Memorial Plaza.
And then it had a baby — hundreds of them, in fact. There are now Survivor Tree “daughters” growing in Orlando, Paris and Newtown, Conn., among other places that have been struck by heartbreaking events.
“I look at it as a symbol that life does go on, even after such a terrible tragedy,” said Steve Perry, a retired assistant principal.
He brought the Survivor Tree’s 421 seedlings to John Bowne High School in Flushing in 2013. There, on a 4-acre farmstead behind baseball and soccer fields, the little trees have been lovingly tended by the students of the John Bowne agriculture program, the only one of its kind in the New York City school system.
“It was a great horticultural teaching tool for our students,” said Perry. “And then it became a great teaching tool about 9/11.”
On a recent morning, Ruben Reyes, 17, crouched to examine a sapling whose roots had outgrown its 5-gallon container.
“This one we have to put in a new pot,” he explained. “We’ve got to make sure everything stays perfect.”
By the time Reyes and his classmates were born, 9/11 was history.
“Even early on, I noticed the seniors teaching the freshmen as they worked, educating the younger kids on what 9/11 was,” Perry said.
“I knew a little bit about 9/11 before I got here,” said Emily Sommer, 16. “But this has helped me appreciate what the heroes went through that day. Now it’s really important to me to keep this patriotic feeling alive.”
Each year, the 9/11 Memorial donates saplings to three communities that have endured mass shootings, terrorist attacks and other unspeakable tragedies. Perry and his successor, assistant principal Patrycja Zbrzezny, help students prepare each tree for the big move. They’ve also distributed more than 300 trees to Sept. 11 monuments in town squares and firehouses nationwide.
One of the 9/11 Museum’s donated seedlings stands on the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, honoring the victims of 2015 and 2016 terror attacks in France. Another grows outside a firehouse in Prescott, Ariz., where 19 firefighters were killed battling a 2013 wildfire. A sibling waits in Snohomish County, Wash. as ground is broken on a memorial for residents who died in a 2014 landslide.
One of the very first donations traveled just 10 miles, to Beach 129th Street in Belle Harbor, Queens.
The close-knit neighborhood lost dozens on 9/11, then suffered the November 2001 crash of Flight 587 — which killed 260 on the plane and five on the ground — and was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Anne Marie Greene took responsibility for the little tree that arrived at Belle Harbor’s Church of St. Francis DeSales from the school in 2013.
“We’re by the ocean, so it really took a beating,” she recalled. “It needed a lot of love, a lot of care.”
As Greene looked after the tree, she grieved. Her sister, Kathie Lawler, and nephew Christopher died when the American Airlines jet dropped on their house in 2001. The home of another sister burned down during the 2012 hurricane.
Eight years later, the tree stands tall, surrounded by daffodils in springtime and marigolds in summer. A bronze plaque explains its significance to schoolchildren and passersby.
“Having it here has meant a lot to me,” Greene said. “Sept. 11, the plane crash, Sandy — it took a lot of love, a lot of care and a lot of support for our community to get through.
“This tree means hope.”
From Ground Zero to the world
The 9/11 Museum has given trees to 24 global communities hit by tragedy
2020: The Bahamas (Hurricane Dorian); Christchurch, New Zealand (Al Noor Mosque shooting); five NYC hospitals (COVID-19 pandemic)
2019: Las Vegas, Nev. (Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting); Pittsburgh, Penn. (Tree of Life Synagogue shooting); Marathon, Greece (wildfires)
2018: Parkland, Fla. (Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting); London, England (Grenfell Tower fire); Puerto Rico (Hurricane Maria)
2017: Manchester, England (concert terror bombing); Charleston, S.C. (Emanuel AME Church shooting); Haiti (Hurricane Matthew; tree planted at embassy in Washington DC)
2016: San Bernardino, Calif. (Christmas party shooting); Orlando, Fla. (Pulse nightclub shooting); Paris, France (Nice and Paris terror attacks)
2015: Newtown, Conn. (Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting); Joplin, Miss. (tornado); Madrid, Spain (terror bombings; tree planted at embassy in Washington DC)
2014: Oso, Wash. (mudslide); Gulfport, Miss. (Hurricane Katrina); Killeen, Texas (Fort Hood shootings)
2013: Far Rockaway, Queens (Hurricane Sandy); Prescott, Ariz. (Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighters); Boston, Mass. (Boston Marathon bombing)