Having survived the tragedy of 9/11, the battered tree was nursed back to health, and later replanted where it once stood. Now, it's a symbol of resilience for people everywhere.

By Zee Krstic
September 11, 2019
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Millions of Americans and tourists alike visit New York City's World Trade Center every year to pay their respects at the 9/11 Memorial. While nearly everyone has some memory of the day's events, many visitors are surprised to learn about one of the memorial's living exhibits that was saved from the rubble 18 years ago: the "Survivor Tree," which stands tall near the memorial pools on the museum's site today. 

In October of 2001, those tasked with clearing Ground Zero were surprised to find a Callery Pear tree actually bearing leaves despite being buried in debris for over a month. According to the museum's website, the tree was severely damaged; it had snapped roots, as well as burned and broken branches. But first responders were determined to keep the tree alive—it was the only surviving piece of greenery from the site—and it was placed in the care of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation not too long after. 

"It had one branch still alive… It was poking out of the debris field, and it had given off some leaves," says Ronaldo Vega, the memorial senior director of design for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, in a museum video produced about the Survivor Tree. "Now, trees don't give off leaves in October—unless it's dying, and it wants to live; unless a tree wants to show the world, 'I still have life.'" 

Richie Cabo, a horticulturalist formerly with the New York City Parks Department, shares that the tree was nursed back to flourishing health over the next few years after being planted in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. "When the tree first came in and I saw it, I didn't think it would survive. [My boss] thought it would survive; he showed us how to take care of it, and we all did," he says in the video. "And the next spring when the buds started to come out, you could see there was life in the tree; you could see that a dove had laid a nest in the center of it." 

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It wasn't until a decade later that the tree, mostly healed, was once again replanted back at the 9/11 Memorial in downtown Manhattan. For nine years, since it was returned to the site in 2010, the tree has inspired the millions of visitors who often marvel at and touch it's scarred trunk, a steadfast reminder of all the healing the tree has done since then. "You can look at this dark, deep, burrowed bark at the bottom; and then, all the sudden it's a transition to a very smooth bark. And all these are all brand new growth after 9/11," Vega says. "This presentation of its very skin, it shows the horror of that day; and the healing, the recovery of that day as well. This tree is still here [just as] we are still here: This tree is surviving and thriving, and there's no reason why we can't."

And while the tree remains firmly planted at the 9/11 Memorial, it has gone on to inspire other communities who have suffered tragic loss as well. In the hopes of inspiring hope and healing, officials at the museum have harvested seedlings from the Survivor Tree each year in order to share them with three different communities; the program launched in 2013. Last year, they were shared with city officials in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They were also shared with city planners in London in honor of those who lost their lives at the Grenfell Tower Fire, as well as with officials in Puerto Rico following the destruction brought on by Hurricane Maria. 

As we continue to remember the tragic events of 9/11, the tree has grown once more to provide a sense of peace and inspiration to people around the world. For more information about the Survivor Tree and it's seedling program, including prior honorees, head to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum's website.

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