Lily took a shuttle bus from her apartment complex to Market Street station and caught the 5:45 a.m. bus to Remembrance Towers. Most people took the elevator, but on Remembrance Day, September 11, for her first visit during her first year in Denver, she decided to take the pilgrim’s route. She was not the only one starting up the tower stairs at sunrise. A line of about two hundred people, mostly young, like her, but some who were old enough to remember September 11, 2001, waited to pass through security and make the climb on this free day for the observation deck. There were actually two lines, for the North and South towers respectively. She chose the South Tower, because it was usually a little less crowded. They her ticket read 6:32 a.m. when she started.
In addition to being physically demanding, climbing the 3703 stairs up 2,640 feet to the 160th story was haunting. Every step had three names inscribed on bricks near eye level, one for each person killed in the Invesco Field Massacre of 2009 when a crop duster pulling a sign had flown over the packed stands to drop its deadly cargo. The names of the tens of thousands were sickened by not killed filled the bricks of the plaza at the base of the towers. Most pilgrims took time to pause every once and a while to mediate at one or another brick. Many had little slips of paper printed out from a directory at the base with names of loved ones and a brick location on them. Lily was no exception. One of her father’s cousins, a coworker’s father, and the late wife of her high school science teacher, who had been a mentor for her before she dropped out of high school, had all died in the massacre. She had slips for each of them.
The long walk up the stairs was interrupted by windows providing an increasingly good view of the surrounding city, water fountains, an occasional bathroom, an informational signs every four or five stories. The first sign reminded Lily that the Remembrance Towers were the tallest buildings on Earth, far taller than the Sears Tower in Chicago, which was the tallest building in the United States after the Remembrance Towers, the Petronis Towers in Malaysia, or the Mao Building in Beijing, which, at 500 meters, was the tallest building in the world until the Remembrance Towers were built. Another sign informed pilgrims that the Towers were home to the digital signal broadcast towers for every television station in the metropolitan area and most of the radio and wireless communications towers.
Lines on the wall informed the climbers as they reached first 6000 feet above sea level, and then 7000 feet above sea level. The top was just over 8000 feet above sea level. Lily cried just a little to think that she was about as far from the sea as it was possible to be in the world, at least in the country where she was born, as each new line appeared.
Other signs traced the ownership of the Towers. Originally, Mile High Tower Corporation had set out, with lease commitments and investments from many of the largest businesses in Colorado, to build a single tower a mile high. The engineering didn’t work out and the plan was revised to build two half mile high towers. First United Bank and Trust Company provided the financing. Ground was broken two years to the day after the Massacre, and six years later, the first tenant moved in. Since then it had become one of the must see tourist destinations in Denver.
Sign after sign explained the engineering marvels involved. The titanium girder construction, the foundations dovetailed hundreds of feet into bedrock, aerodynamic features designed to minimize sway, features that made the building bend rather than break in the face of stress like flexible window mountings and composite cross beams, precision engineering necessary to prevent cumulative deviations from specifications from accumulating as the building rose ever higher, an evacuation plan involving aircraft from three neighboring airports instead of ladder trucks for the higher stories, miles of wire, tons of materials, unprecedented elevator designs and window cleaning robots designed specifically for the Towers.
The Towers had never made business sense, the signs reported. Skyscrapers were a product of high population density, poor transportation, and a need for businessmen to deal with each other face to face on short notice. In an age where everyone carried a phone, every business had videoconference capabilities, and documents where exchanged electronically it didn’t make sense. Denver also lacked the population density, and a system of one way streets and dedicated bus lanes in its inner city that made office to office travel faster that most major U.S. cities. The initial lease commitments kept Mile High Tower Corporation solvent for seven years, but when the time came to renew leases, fifteen years after the fervor for the project born in the Massacre had died down, economics won out. First United Bank and Trust foreclosed in the world’s largest every foreclosure action, and the Towers were put on the market.
President Powell, Colorado Governor Veiga, and City and County of Denver Mayor Romanoff formed the Remembrance Towers Authority and made a joint offer to buy the Towers at a fraction of the outstanding debt, partially in cash and partially in exchange for federal, state and city office buildings in the metropolitan area, which First United Bank and Trust accepted. For the past five years, the Towers had become the world’s largest government office building. Including the broad lower levels of the two towers, which were linked so that the two towers were actually a single building, it had more office space than the Pentagon.
But, Lily was nineteen years old and impatient. While she stopped at two bricks (the third was in the North tower), and read a few signs, she didn’t read every word and was quicker up the stairs than many of her companions. She was one of the first of the group that had been waiting in line to make the climb to arrive at the top observation deck at about nine o’clock. The record set in the Memorial Day stair race was just under 26 minutes to the top, but today, Lily was in no mood to race. She only had two bricks to stop at, neither from anyone particularly close, but that was enough to make the meaning sink in.
By then, the sun had risen. It was a clear day. The South and East sides of the South Tower gleamed in an almost blinding reflection. The wind rushed by making the flags at the corners of the Towers flutter in the wind. She could smell the thunderstorm that would arrive late that afternoon, although none of the other viewer would have known that without a weather map. Pikes Peak was visible far to the South. A few dozen yards to the North was the North Tower. To the West, the Rocky Mountains stood bare, with the last of the previous year’s snow melted away, and the new snow not yet fallen. She could see patches of black in the mountains where various wildfires had burned, some as recently as this summer. A computerized map named the fires, but Lily didn’t care to look. To the East, the City spread out in all its glory. The cluster of tall buildings in downtown Denver that housed the elite private corporations and law firms of the mountain states seemed small by comparison. The airplanes at Denver International Airport looked like tiny toys. The farm that had once been her father’s was too far away to see, even at eight thousand feet, but Lily could see the Front Range roll out before her past E-470, past the City of Aurora, past the urban growth boundary the state imposed around the time Lily was born.
The North Tower was dominated by communications antennas. But, the scene at the center of the South Tower was a chilling reminder of why the Towers were built, which she hadn’t considered when she decided which tower to climb. The turret in the middle of the South Tower, wrapped around another set of communications antennas, with its radar dish, huge telescope-like sights and anti-aircraft missile battery, was all business. The Army sergeant on duty clearly took his job very seriously. His eyes were glued to his monitors and sights, and he didn’t have a word to spare for the visitors. A couple of corporals, with automatic weapons shouldered, kept a wary eye on the visitors from behind their gated territory atop the building, while their superior kept his eyes on the sky. No neat little signs explained precisely what the capabilities of that turret were, but Lily didn’t doubt that they were capable of taking down even an errant jet fighter.
By nine-thirty, the heat of the summer sun on the black granite of the observation deck was getting uncomfortable. Lily set out across Faith Bridge, connecting the North and South observation decks, which was itself a marvel. From a distance, the transparent bridge made of glass fiber and plastics was invisible, although it could be lit like a neon sign if desired as it was on the 4th of July when The Towers were the launch site for the City’s fireworks. The surface texture and prism effects in the design minimized its reflectivity. The flooring and walls of the bridge were made of flexible and sheer glass fabric instead of a rigid material so that it could flex with the tower tops in the wind. The guard rails were curved outwards, so that they would stop you from falling, but weren’t convenient to hold. Many visitors simply couldn’t stomach the crossing, and either didn’t start, or retreated after a few steps. The 140 yards between the buildings was chosen to match the size of the football field that had once stood directly beneath this bridge. Lily took a deep breath and strode confidently across, breathing the fresh air, looking in all directions including down, and arriving at the other side. She took in the view of Boulder from the North side of the North Tower, found the stairs down, skipped the overpriced coffee shop and snack bar on the 158th floor, and walked down the North Tower. The signs were identical, so Lily ignored them, and the going was quicker on the way down than it was on the way up.
Lily walked down the steps, stopped by the brick for her teacher’s late wife for about ten minutes, sobbing and then contemplating it, and then continued to the bottom of the stairs and waited for the bus back to Market Street. The fountain was spraying from two directions in arches into the center of the fountain’s pool. Across the fountain from her, she saw a woman in a worn black dress and hat, crying, looking at the pool. She looked like she was praying or talking silently to herself, or maybe to the person she mourned for. She had probably lost her husband twenty-one years ago in the Massacre and never recovered emotionally. Lily felt a tear of her own just watching this woman.