Rescue & Recovery: In Their Own Voices With Bram Gunther

  • April 18, 2023
  • A worker stands next to the recovered Callery Pear tree, near the ruined facade of 5 World Trade Center on the right
  • Workers stand to the right of the replanted Callery Pear tree at the Arthur Ross Citywide Nursery in the Bronx

Left: The Callery Pear tree that would become the Survivor Tree is removed from a planter between the remains of World Trade Center 4 and 5. Right: The recovered tree replanted at the Parks Department's Arthur Ross Citywide Nursery in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.  

We're marking Earth Day with a special installment of "In Their Own Voices" featuring Bram Gunther, Deputy Director of Forestry and Horticulture for the New York City Parks Department on 9/11. Gunther discusses the ways city parks served as a commons for grieving and gathering in the months following the attacks, and his role in helping to save the Survivor Tree, its return to the World Trade Center, and what it meant to the rescue, recovery, and relief worker community.

The Survivor Tree budding on the plaza

The Survivor Tree today

Where were you on 9/11? 
I’m a native New Yorker — born and raised in Manhattan. My first job was as a journalist, but after travelling the world for a year, I felt that I wasn’t linked with nature as much as I wanted to be. So, I went to graduate school and got a degree in environmental management, and then started working for the New York City Parks Department. 

On 9/11, I was Deputy Director of Forestry and Horticulture. That morning, my day started at the Citywide Nursery, in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx.  Everyone there knew something was happening, but we weren’t sure just what. We knew whatever it was had major implications, so I got in my car to head back to Queens to help staff with whatever was going on. 

I was heading over the Whitestone Bridge making my way from the Bronx to Queens when I saw one of the Twin Towers come down. Of course, it was then I understood what was happening. I didn’t know it was a terrorist attack, but I knew it was serious. 

What role did you play in the rescue, recovery, and relief efforts?
A week or two after 9/11, my boss, then Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, asked me to go down to Ground Zero to see if there was plant survival. When I arrived, the street gardens that surrounded the World Trade Center plaza were covered in dust. At that time, I knew I would have to wait until the next spring to see what impact the dust would have on the plants. Inside the plaza itself, what was now Ground Zero, there were six trees that survived: three Callery Pears and three Littleleaf Lindens. The trees were covered in dust but were otherwise okay. I arranged through some of the workers on site to transport the trees from the devastation to an open space at the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge, directly across from City Hall. In essence, those trees became the first living memorial.

Soon after, Rebecca Clough, an Assistant Commissioner from NYC Department of Design and Construction, identified another tree among all the rubble that was still alive, and my colleague, Mike Brown, told me about it. I told them there was no chance for the tree’s survival. Some of its limbs were almost soldered to a wall. However, Mike was persistent, and so I said we would try. It had to be surgically removed from the rubble. It was brought to Citywide Nursery where we carved out a spot for it. I thought, this tree is going to break people’s hearts. It’s not going to work. But in the months after 9/11, it received such incredible care, that the next year I was dumbfounded by its growth. The tree later became known as the Survivor Tree. It’s a great story.  

Reporters would visit the nursery to see the tree. We weren’t trying to advertise it, but it was such a compelling story of survival, and that’s how Ron Vega learned of the tree. We had never thought about the tree leaving the nursery. We thought that this was going to be its new home. However, Ron had other plans and wanted to return it to Ground Zero. It became obvious that it needed to go back. When we decided the tree was ready to return and we knew it could handle the transplantation shock, Ron organized a group of arborists and developed a system to brace the tree before taking it downtown.

When I saw the Survivor Tree on [what would become] the 9/11 Memorial a few days later, I felt like the orphan had returned home. It seemed odd because, at the time, it was the only tree on the plaza. I had a weird feeling that it would be lonely, but then I realized it had come home. It was where it should be. It was great to have it at Citywide Nursery, but at the Memorial, it was serving a public purpose.

Can you describe the bond between you and other members of the rescue and recovery community? How has this community impacted you?
Early on, when I was helping save the initial six trees, the response of rescue, recovery and relief workers was overwhelmingly supportive. They understood implicitly, in a way I never had to tell them, that the trees bore witness and the importance that they were rescued. Sometimes, the workers would wander over from their areas of the site and ask what we were doing. We would tell them, and they would sit with us. I remember one guy who sat down, and he started to cry. He realized the trees were survivors. He said, "Those trees have to live.” It was very emotional.

Trees as a form of grief and mourning have been around for a long time. When people are looking for a way to mourn communally and publicly, it usually centers around a form of nature. And that’s what these trees did for the workers at Ground Zero, and what the Survivor Tree continues to do at the Memorial.

Anything else you'd like to add?
Following 9/11, city parks took on a collective, communal stress. They functioned as commons where people could be together. They were a place where communities could grieve; a place where individuals could seek information or find solace; a place to mourn and reflect. Parks took that on.

In school, I studied the history of parks and what it meant for humanity and communities, and in recognizing parks’ role as a place for collective gathering, the Parks Department quickly recognized its own role in helping the city grieve. It established living memorials in each borough. We chose a park with a view of lower Manhattan and created an arboretum or a garden of trees to recognize the day.

I know that trees don’t speak our language. For those that work in this field, we know trees are a witness of history. Sometimes we can speak their language when we understand the rings of a tree or their biology, but we cannot ask them to narrate their version of what happened on a particular day.

Gunther's 2013 oral history mentions seeds taken from the Survivor Tree. Those seeds ultimately become part of our Survivor Tree Seedling Program; each year on September 12th, we announce three communities that have recently endured a tragedy as future recipients of seedling. The seedlings serve as a symbol of resilience and hope.

Compiled by Caitlyn Best, Government and Community Affairs Coordinator 

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