NEW YORK (AP) _ After three months of peering through gaps in fences and past police barricades, visitors on Sunday got an unobstructed view of the remains of the World Trade Center from a newly built observation platform.
Starting at dawn, hundreds of people stood in a line that snaked for blocks, waiting in freezing temperatures for the 13-foot-high stage to open at 9 a.m.
For some, the view of ground zero was a religious epiphany.
``This is disturbing _ but also wonderful. We are Christians, and this teaches us to help and love one another,'' said Shannon Pope of St. Louis, Mo., tears streaming down her cheeks as she clutched her 4-year-old son Collin in her arms.
She had won the visit for herself and 19 relatives in a nationwide family reunion essay contest. The group included her 90-year-old grandmother, Janice Floyd.
``It's unbelievable! It's still smoking!'' Floyd said when she saw the devastation.
The platform, accessed by a long wooden ramp, can hold between 300 to 400 people. It is big enough across the front for about a dozen people at a time to stand side-by-side to see the huge red cranes and other machinery that have been at work day and night since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The cranes still stop, almost daily, so workers can remove the remains of the dead.
Instead of craning for a view down blocked-off streets, visitors now can get an unobstructed view of the jagged holes in the ground that open into what was once the trade center's underground mall.
``What struck me was the open wide space, no buildings. But it also looks like a construction site,'' said Scott Smith, who drove to New York from West Hartford, Conn., with his 7-year-old daughter, Lane.
The rectangular, fenced-in structure is located on Church Street alongside the cemetery behind historic St. Paul's Church, and within view of City Hall.
The platform was officially opened Saturday by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who urged people to ``come here and say a little prayer and reflect on the whole history of America.''
Giuliani also added an inscription to one of the wooden railings: ``We will always remember what you did here _ you, our heroes _ to save America. God bless you.''
The city plans three more observation platforms in the area, but there was no immediate word on when they would be finished.
History was on the mind of Greg Packer, a New Yorker visiting ground zero for the fourth time.
``Each time, it just gets harder and harder,'' he said. ``But there's nothing more important than to see this. This is more important to me than any concert or game that I've ever seen, because this is history.''
A visitor from France, Frederic Hustache of Paris, got up at 6 a.m. to join the line _ but the cold drove him into a coffee shop across the street.
``The point is not to actually see everything. It's to feel what is here,'' he said.
Hustache came with a friend, Armand Benezra, who had last visited when the twin towers were intact.
``I still remember New York that way,'' Benezra said. ``This has become a sort of big cemetery. And we are here because of all the people who died. We're here to pay tribute to them.''