Seventeen years after the September 11 attacks, a natural monument now sprouts out of the space once occupied by the Twin Towers in New York. Known as the Survivor Tree, this majestic memorial stands as tribute to the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives on that tragic day — and as a testament to the unbreakable strength of the human spirit.
The tree, a Callery pear, was originally planted in the 1970s on the eastern edge of the original World Trade Center. There it stood, undisturbed, for almost three decades — until hijackers crashed planes into the towers on that fateful day. The destruction that rained down on the Callery pear reduced the tree to an eight-foot mass of charred wood. Its branches and leaves had been scorched off and ripped from the trunk.
As emergency responders searched the rubble for survivors, the last living thing they recovered from the wreckage was the Callery pear, though many thought the burned husk wasn't worth saving. "During the attacks in 2001, the World Trade Center, when it collapsed, it fell on the tree and it decapitated it. When they were doing the cleanup at the World Trade, somebody noticed it amongst the rubble," Richie Cabo, a horticulturist, said in a video posted by the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.
However, the Callery pear tree is a hardy, disease-resistant species. Soon enough, it began to grow leaves again. "Trees don't give off leaves in October unless a tree is dying and wants to live — unless a tree wants to show the world, 'I still have life,'" said Ronaldo Vega, the senior director of design at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.
The decision was made to move the remains of the tree to the Arthur Ross Citywide Nursery in the Bronx so that it could be nursed back to health. At the time, Robert Zappala, the former manager of Citywide Nursery (which is responsible for growing many of the flowers found in New York City parks), described the Callery pear as "mortally wounded. All the upper branches on this tree was [sic] shattered and torn off."
Many thought the tree would not survive, but after nine years of meticulous and dedicated care, the pear tree began to thrive. According to Cabo, a dove — often a symbol of peace — once made a nest in its center. In March of 2010, the Survivor Tree again lived up to its name after surviving a storm that temporarily uprooted it. Later that year, Vega and his team worked to bring the tree back to its original home: the site of the World Trade Center.
It's fitting that seedlings from the Survivor Tree, a symbol of hope, have been planted at the scenes of tragedies all over the world. A seedling was planted in Boston in honor of the 2013 marathon bombing victims, and another was placed in Orlando as tribute to those killed in the 2016 Pulse nightclub attack. Spain and France have also planted Survivor Tree seedlings.
Today, the tree stands at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum on the west side of the south pool to represent the fallen South Tower. If you look closely, you can see the rough, cracked bark at its base — scars of its traumatic past. But from the damaged trunk grow smooth new branches, proof that healing is possible with time. Standing tall against the rebuilt World Trade Center, the Survivor Tree is a message of hope, a reminder of resilience, and a source of pride.