On March 11, 2002, 88 searchlights, trained straight skyward in two brilliant, four-mile-high beams—two of the most powerful beams of light ever created—illuminated the New York night, visible throughout the city and the tristate area, and up to 60 miles away. Relief workers nearby, who had been plowing through rubble for six months, wept. Both an act of commemoration and a symbol of resilience, the art installation was the first attempt to fill the void in the skyline, if only temporarily, and it neatly bypassed the debate over whether the site should be rebuilt or left as consecrated ground.
The idea for a salve of light had come immediately and simultaneously to three separate groups, who, once alerted to each others’ existence, worked together to bring the $500,000 project to fruition. Artists Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda had a special connection. A few weeks before the attacks, they had been working in a studio on the 91st floor of the North Tower (the artist who took over their space died that day), developing a bioluminescent-light installation that would have gone on the World Trade Center radio tower. Their image of “Phantom Towers,” published online by the New York Times, on September 14, became the tribute’s first rendering. “Those towers are like ghost limbs,” LaVerdiere said at the time. “We can feel them even though they’re not there anymore.”
The tribute—once called Towers of Light but renamed when victims’ families protested that it seemed to commemorate the loss of the buildings more than the people—ran every night from dusk till dawn until April 14, 2002, and has returned for a single night each subsequent September 11. Although the installation faces long-term financial and logistical challenges (it costs about $500,000 a year and takes a crew of 30 electricians, lighting technicians, stagehands, and production assistants to run), it will surely return this year.